Today we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is something wonderful, miraculous, frankly spectacular when we consider the image associated with it: Our Lady stood upon a cloud being lofted up heavenward.
But why should we care? Why celebrate this event associated with her?
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is momentous and of singular importance because it signals Christ’s victory over the grave; his ascension to God the Father speaks to us of the reconciliation of humanity with God as Jesus comes into the presence of the Father, not just in spirit but in flesh too – humanity is joined to the godhead through Christ. All this speaks of God’s love for us, Christ’s sacrifice for us, our Lord now as our advocate in heaven, and so on.
What does Mary’s assumption into the heavens mean for us?
Well, where Mary goes, we are called to follow. For she was the first disciple, even as Christ lay nestled in her womb, she understood herself to be his servant; she is the Queen of Apostles, sent into the world before all the others with the good news, not only on her lips in the words of the Magnificat, but with that good news physically manifest in her person. And unlike the famous twelve apostles, who had the community of the early church for their support as small as it was; Mary is almost alone – Joseph as protector, and a little donkey to carry her on the road to Bethlehem.
What the assumption is for Mary is the reward for her singular service; but its the fullness of life that we are all promised after this life should we be faithful in our service and witness.
In the understanding of our Christian and Jewish forebears, true life is not merely spiritual but is embodied. To be is not to exist just as spirit, but to have physical existence… to actually be; to be something God has created and breathed life into. The life beyond this one is not to be a ghostly existence. The promised culmination of history that we read of in the book of Revelation is a uniting of Heaven and Earth; that is, the spiritual and the material eternally joined, the world redeemed from corruption and perfected in Christ, never to know death and decay again – to be like Mary is now, living in body and spirit in the presence of God.
And this is especially important in the matter of justice. For those who had their lives unfairly, unjustly, tragically cut short, there is the prospect of recompense. And the logic of the Church is that if this doesn’t happen, if there is no resurrection to eternal, embodied life for the righteous, then the concept of justice is an illusion – just as St. Paul said, no resurrection of the body means our faith is in vain.
So as fantastic as the notion of Mary being carried up in a cloud is, try to grasp that final vision of the Holy Bible, with the new Jerusalem descending, with the dead rising from the grave to final judgement, the souls of the faithful restored to their bodies to enjoy the fullness of life and the freedom and joy of the righteous.
Christ is the first fruit of the dead, we say. Mary is the next; and then we are to be the great harvest.
Death is the central problem of all human societies, those that exist today, and all that ever have been. Obviously, prevention of death is a priority – and the more complex societies are, the more difficult it can be to prevent disease and accident. We forget just how complex even a small city is, with all its “moving parts” that are the people living, working, playing and worshiping within it. But the other aspect of the problem of death lies in our inevitable defeat by it. No government can stave it off forever, no number of doctors and nurses can stand in its way, and we need to remember that we cannot hand over our lives, our freedoms and rights, in exchange for freedom from death – that would be like spending your life savings to buy the Brooklyn Bridge – the con man never owned the bridge; and no mortal soul can provide you with that escape – liberation from death’s power is only had through God.
The rumour this past week is that we will have federal election call by the end of Sunday, or perhaps Monday. The government’s program, in an ironic way demonstrates the strange schizophrenia of our culture toward death. That we have so overthrown our economy and our civil liberties to deal with a disease, that while serious, is really only lethal to a small fraction of our population, the aged and the immune-compromised is astounding. More that 99 percent will recover from it should they get it; yet the fear of death will likely make it the central issue in the campaign.
But even as that fear is there; the government is also proposing expansion of the assisted suicide law well beyond its provision for those who are actually dying, to those who simply don’t want to live anymore. Death here is not feared, but embraced as a friend; and cynically, in light of growing healthcare costs, a friend to the federal and provincial treasuries.
If we look at our culture more generally, this same split in mind is apparent. People don’t like funerals anymore, but prefer cheerful “celebrations of life” which tells me they know longer hold central Christian truths about life and death – that this mortal life is not what we celebrate at a funeral even as we acknowledge the good someone has done: it’s the eternal life that is celebrated.
Cremation having become popular, and I understand why it is increasingly favoured; it, nonetheless, has deprived of us a necessary reminder of our mortality. The sheer inconvenience of the body after death forces upon us the grim reality of it all. The ashes in a tasteful urn are terribly convenient. A funeral, or celebration of life, can be put off for months, burial indefinitely – it’s only those who have discipline of faith that keep it from getting out of hand, of remembering what this is all about.
And just as we try to make death something less burdensome, both in the practicalities of life, and in its sobering effect upon our minds, we see a culture mad to extend life, in search of elixirs, and exercise regimens to extend and improve our physical being in its longevity – an ongoing struggle to stave of senescence, the progressive failure of our bodies that hints at, and eventually speaks loudly of our mortal end.
It is a harsh reality that we are going to die.
In the funeral rite of the church, in the most commonly used first preface to the eucharistic prayer of the funeral mass, the priest prays an acknowledgement that many are “saddened by the certainty of dying” and the prayer continues expressing hope that these will be “consoled by the promise of immortality to come.”
For the attentive faithful, this message of hope I’m sure is heard; to others who mourn, it is either missed, or dismissed as a fairy tale to comfort frightened children, a pleasant lie to smooth over the grief.
Today, as we celebrate our faith in this resurrection in the good spirits of a summer day, without any immediate grief, loss or fear, I hope. This allows us to remember, or perhaps now learn, that as Christian faithful, as dutiful servants or our Lord, as Apostles everyday spreading the good news by our words and actions, we are making ourselves ready, not for an assumption into heaven, but for the consummation of history, for the full flowering of justice, for the complete reconciliation of all with all through Christ. That as Mary stands eternally in the presence of God, body and soul, so too will we all someday, and together hear a loud voice proclaiming: “now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ.