Published on 13 Aug 2012
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin – August 12, 2012
Archdeacon Ellen Clark-King
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
The full name for the feast we’re celebrating today, at least in the more catholic parts of the church, is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. Assumption not in it’s usual meaning of something I assume to be true, but in its theological meaning of the bodily transition of a person, living or dead, from earth to heaven. So it’s a feast celebrating the doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary got a fast track ticket to the bodily resurrection. For me this is more likely a mythical story than the record of an actual event – but myths can still carry theological truth.
It’s an old feast in popular terms – celebrated across Europe from early medieval times – but a young one in official terms. The Vatican only made the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary part of its official – and, from their point of view, infallible – teaching in 1950, 62 years ago. And 62 seems a lot younger than it used to! The Anglican church, with practiced Anglican compromise, uses August 15th as a day to celebrate Mary but says that Anglicans can choose to believe in the assumption or not as they feel fit. Meanwhile some of the more Protestant churches dismiss the whole thing as the ‘unwarrantable assumption’. But today I want to explore the truths that this story tells and how it can be a doctrine full of life-giving potential for all the church.
Let me start by introducing you to Hannah Arendt, the provocative, chain smoking German political theorist and philosopher of the last century. One of Arendt’s key contributions to philosophical thought was to try to turn on its head the way that human beings refer to themselves. She invited people to stop thinking of ourselves as mortals and, instead, to think of ourselves as natals. Natals coming from the same root as nativity. In other words Arendt asks us to stop defining ourselves as ‘those who will die’ and start knowing ourselves as ‘those who are born’. She put the emphasis on the potential inherent in each human being as they enter the world rather than on the fact that one day they will leave it.
This emphasis was taken up by the Canadian feminist Grace Jantzen. She criticizes traditional theology for being too focused on death and what happens after death, and goes on to say: “But what if we were to begin with birth, and with the hope and possibility and wonder implicit in it? How if we were to treat natality and the emergence of this life and this world with the same philosophical seriousness and respect which has traditionally been paid to mortality and the striving for other worlds?” A focus on birth means we can’t ignore the needs of human beings in this life in favour of vague promises of pie in the sky when you die by and by.
This seems in complete harmony with the song of Mary that we heard as our gospel reading. Even while bearing divinity in her womb, Mary is not focused on a heavenly realm but on this world and what needs to be put right here. Her song is not about glories to come beyond death but the righting of injustice right now and right here: the powerful are brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty. The God living into incarnation in her womb is coming with a message of change for this world, coming to live out his mother’s hopes for the way this world could be.
Celebrating Mary naturally leads us into celebrating birth and incarnation, into celebrating natality and this life. And it can even lead us further – into a whole new way of thinking about atonement, about salvation. Usually our focus for this is on the cross and the moment of Jesus’ death – one reason it gets talked about more during Holy Week than during Advent and Christmas. But that doesn’t have to be our starting point. Kathryn Tanner, among other theologians, has pointed to the incarnation as the key act in atonement rather than the crucifixion – to Bethlehem rather than to Golgotha as the site of our salvation, to birth rather than to death as what sets us free..
To put her thinking with a brevity that an academic would probably slap me for – Tanner believes that human beings are transformed because of God being born as one of us rather than because of God dying as one of us. This way of thinking isn’t really new – it just got lost a little over the centuries. Cyril, the fifth century Patriarch of Alexandra, had the same idea. He expressed it with the image of fire – just as fire warms things which are not fire, so Christ’s presence among us warms all of us with his own spark of divinity. Or to come at it from a different angle, the way is open for all of us to become what Christ is because God became what we are.
Peter and I were teaching about this at Sorrento last week. And one of our course members, Louise Peters the Dean of Kamloops, came up with a wonderful insight about Jesus’ birth – one that brings us back to a focus on Mary. One of the huge symbolic events that happens as Christ dies is that the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies in the temple is mysteriously ripped in two. This is usually interpreted as revealing a final rending of all that separates God and humanity – the veil between the divine and the human is destroyed. But Louise pointed to an earlier rending – the rending of Mary’s body as Jesus is born – and pondered with us as to whether this could be seen as the moment when the veil between humanity and divinity was forever sundered. A sundering of birth rather than death. It’s always a wonderful moment when those you are teaching teach you!
Now to the 64000 dollar question – why does this matter, and what does it have to do with the feast of the assumption? It matters because, as Jantzen said, it teaches us that this world and these bodies as the place where God is at work and where we are to be at work. It teaches the value to be put on bodies rather than just souls and reminds us of the unfathomable potential of each human being born into the world. It teaches us that it is in our humanity that we experience the transformative touch of God’s presence and that we do not need to wait for death to begin to grow into the divine likeness. Our journey to being at one with God is the journey from birth onwards, it does not wait till we die to begin.
And what could be more affirmative of our bodies than the doctrine of the assumption? Here we have a human body – a woman’s body no less – being taken up into heaven. Not some pure disembodied soul, not even some perfect Disney princess’s body. But the body of an aged peasant woman, with stretch marks and age spots and all the scars of daily living in a hard peasant economy. A normal human body just like ours, despite the fact that it was also the body of the mother of God. This is the key truth of the assumption – not that it sets Mary apart from all the rest of us but that it validates all bodies in validating her body. God values us as natals, as those born into bodies and into this world, and asserts this through the breaking of all barriers between the earthly and the eternal realms.
So today I look out at a congregation full of natals – full of those born with a potential for wonder, for fulfilment and for great deeds of love. I look out at bodies which are valued, honoured and beloved by God. I look out at sisters and brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, potential God-bearers to the world. And together we celebrate the feast of the assumption, the feast of a woman of unsurpassed courage and faith, and, just as importantly, the feast of bodiliness. Let us pray:
Mary, our beloved and courageous sister,
may our natal bodies shine with love as yours did,
may our hearts and mouths cry out for justice as yours did,
and may we know ourselves as beloved of God,
in both body and soul,
as you did and do for ever.
We ask these things in the name of your beloved Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
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