The Feast of the Assumption
August 15, 2004
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Revelation 11:19; 12:1-10; Ps 45:10-16; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56)
Today the church invites us to celebrate the completion of Mary's earthly pilgrimage, as she is drawn to the fullness of glory, body and soul, in heaven. The readings from last night's vigil through today's Mass put us before the whole spread of salvation history, from the ark of the covenant during the exile of the Israelites, through Mary's earthly story visiting Elizabeth, and down to the final act when Christ hands the whole of creation back to the Father.
But I need to begin today with a confession: For an extended period I found it difficult to situate Mary in my spirituality.
Like many of you here today I grew up in a Catholic world in which we didn't hear much about the humanity of Jesus, his ordinary life on this earth. Jesus was -- simply -- "God" with a capital God. Oh, we recited the answer to the question in the Baltimore catechism, that he was truly God and truly man. But at most we heard of his miracles; he was the wonder-worker. God worked through his human nature but only when he was doing extraordinary things.
As a result we heard of Jesus as distant from us, almost inaccessible. On the other hand, Mary was close. We had statues of her with her hands always just so. The big events were May processions, with crowns being placed on her head. She was our mother, we could pray to her because she understood. In fact, there was a saying which capsulized that spirituality: "to Jesus through Mary."
It wasn't a bad spirituality; it 'worked'. But there was always a tinge of the romantic about it. 'Pious', sometimes in a cloying sense. Mary was passive -- as we were meant to be.
Then along came the Second Vatican Council. The pope and bishops of the world clearly felt that we had to redress a certain imbalance and get Jesus back into the center of the story. We were encouraged to read the Scriptures, in a way we had never been before. And in particular, what we called the Old Testament.
Jesus' human reality was not some sort of puppet through which his divinity worked, it was fully real, fully like the day-to-day life you and I are called to lead. Without losing his identity with our humanity, Jesus worked out our salvation through a life like ours.
And then as a result of reading some good theologians' work I was led to think about how Jesus' human story came to be. That he was a Jew through and through. His story was the story of the Israelite people. His whole consciousness was shaped by their prayer: when he prayed his prayer was drawn right from the Psalms. His imagination was peopled by the great figures of that story: Moses and Ezechiel and David and Abraham.
It turns out that you can't understand Jesus unless you know the story and culture which shaped him. It's just like with you and me. For many of you in this church you were shaped by your ancestors' experience of slavery. For me it's the fact of being descended from some wild loons roaming around on the moors of Ireland.
This was a spirituality that was engaging, and grounded. But where did it leave Mary?
Then I was led to ask the question: where did Jesus learn that story and that culture? And it all fell into place.
There is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus studied at the feet of some guru, some rabbinic master. No, his human spirit was shaped in the most powerful way you and I are shaped. At the knee of his mother and her spouse, Mary and Joseph.
So Mary is not the center of it all, but neither is she some bit player who has been pushed center stage. Jesus had to have learned from her. The motto should not be "To Jesus through Mary" but the opposite. From the example of Jesus we can marvel at the attitudes she formed in him.
Just listen to some of the phrases we hear her speak in today's Gospel, in the prayer we call the Magnificat Scholars tell us that it's not a particularly unique prayer. It's a collection of themes and phrases gathered from all across the tradition of her people.
Listen to her words and you will hear the expressions Jesus will use later on:
She says, "God has looked upon his servant in her lowliness." And Jesus proclaims, "I thank you, Father, because you did not reveal these things to the wise but to the little ones."
She says "He has deposed the mighty from their thrones; he has confused the proud in their inmost thoughts." And we hear Jesus challenge the religious leaders: "Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, you hypocrites! You are whited sepulchers, laying on others burdens you do not bear yourselves. You make sure the outside of the cup is clean, but inside it is filthy."
She says, "He has raised the lowly to high places." And Jesus will say, "The last shall be first. The least among you is greater than John the Baptizer."
She says, "The rich he has sent empty away." And Jesus will say, "Beware, you rich; it is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom."
This Mary is no demure, passive 'lady.' She is strong, she is rooted in the great figures of the old covenant: in Miriam and Deborah and Esther. She challenges -- and clearly she taught Jesus to challenge --- the prevailing religiosity of her day. The more we study Jesus the more we will be impressed with this woman who drew him forward to adulthood.
And she completes her mission as a parent by achieving that most difficult of tasks for any parent: she frees him to leave, to go forth on his own. So much so that we see her deal with the challenge of not understanding fully what he has become. She tells him at Cana that they have no wine and he tells her -- there is no way of softening it -- "what business if that of ours?" She follows in the crowd and when they tell Jesus she's there he says, "Who is my mother? Those who do the will of my Father are brother and sister and mother to me." She has to deal with the tension every parent feels at the reality of distance from her adult son.
In the scene in First Corinthians Paul then tells us 'the rest of the story.' At the final end Jesus lays the whole of creation at the feet of the Father. Jesus is the first-born, but then come after him "all those who belong to him." Today we celebrate Mary as the first of them, his community, his church. We celebrate the fact that in Jesus and Mary a part of us is already home.
As God's people we form a long line moving across the desert, from exile to our final home. We have already been baptized into the body of the Lord. We are in the middle of this long procession to the Promised Land. Mary has arrived, totally.
As we receive the Lord in Communion today, let us ask him to deepen our appreciation of the powerful role Mary played in shaping his mind and heart and spirit. And then let us ask her to do the same for us, to shape us as she shaped him, to evoke in us the mind and heart of Jesus.