Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin mary

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Blessed Virgin Mary


Isaiah 61.10,11 Galatians 4.4-7 Luke 1.46-55

In the Anglican Calendar, today is called quite simply, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The calendar thus does what Anglicans do best, it ducks a difficult question. For the majority of Christians in the world, today, of course, is more commonly known as, ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ Orthodox Christians refer to it as, ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God’, that is, the ‘falling asleep’.

Today, then, marks the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, to put it more accurately, what many believe happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of her earthly life.

Most protestants, of course, don’t believe anything happened to her that hasn’t also happened to every other Christian at the time of their death. Mary is no different to us, they believe, and so today will pass without so much of a mention of her by most protestant churches and Christians. The Anglican Church mentions her, but leaves it at that.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has only relatively recently acquired the status of being the official teaching of the Church. It was before that a ‘pious belief’; something that many believed and which it was OK to believe, but not something that was the official teaching of the Church.

That changed in 1950, when Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus promulgated the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Church. This was only the second time in the modern era that a Pope had proclaimed a doctrine to be infallible. The first was the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, another doctrine that concerns Mary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Assumption in this way:

‘The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of death.’ (Paragraph 966)

It needs to be stressed that although the promulgation of the doctrine is recent, the feast itself is very old, perhaps even, as many Catholics claim, the oldest feast celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary. What Pope Pius did was to make it obligatory for Catholics to observe it and to believe what it celebrated.

It is fair to say that this is one of Protestant Christians’ worst nightmares. Not only do they reject utterly the idea of BV Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, the idea that a Pope can decide the matter goes against the doctrinal anarchy that Protestantism celebrates above all else. The cry, ‘It is not for the Pope to tell me what to believe!’ is at the heart of the Protestant protest. Whether the Pope gets it right or wrong is, for Protestants, somewhat beside the point.

Well, I am perhaps being a bit naughty here, and to be completely honest, I would have preferred it if the doctrine had remained a ‘pious belief’. But we are where we are. Leaving aside, then, questions of authority and who gets to decide who believes what, what can we say about the doctrine itself?

The last we hear of the BV Mary in Scripture itself is in the book of Acts after the Ascension of our Lord and before the Day of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered in an Upper Room where St Luke tells us:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The assumption in Acts being that the BV Mary was herself baptized in the Spirit. But, after that, we hear no more of her. We do, however, hear quite a lot about her family. As we have just heard, St Luke makes reference to our Lord’s brothers as being amongst those praying in the Upper Room. One of them, St James, went on to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The others were well-known preachers of the Gospel. St Paul can make mention of the ‘brothers of the Lord’ to the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 9:5) and expect them to know who he is talking about.

But what of our Lady herself? We sort of know where she lived after Pentecost. We are told that on the Cross our Lord entrusted his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple and that, from that moment, he took her into his home (John 19:26-27). The most probable identification of the Beloved Disciple is the Apostle John. We know from St Paul that St John was one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). His brother, the Apostle James was killed there (Acts 12:2). We could have guessed the Apostle John’s importance from the central role he had in the earthly ministry of our Lord, being closely associated, as he was, along with his brother, with the Apostle Peter. The three in the Gospels forming something of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples.

But we know literally nothing else. Church tradition is itself divided. One tradition says that the BV Mary died in Jerusalem in the 40s. There is a Church to commemorate the place of her death by the Garden of Gethsemane. Another tradition says that she went to Ephesus with the Apostle John and died there. It’s impossible to know for sure, although I personally tend to the Ephesus tradition.

There have been those who have thought that the BV Mary did not die, but that, when, as Pope Pius put it, the ‘earthly course of her life was finished’, she was assumed while still alive to heaven. Although his words could be interpreted this way, this doesn’t seem to be what Pope Pius intended. No less a figure than St Pope John Paul in a general audience in 1997 made that clear, adding:

‘Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother.’

What seems certain, then, and not in dispute today, is that ‘Mary of Nazareth’ did die, although many prefer the phrase ‘falling asleep’ or ‘dormition’. It is what happened next that causes all the argument. For Protestants, her body would have been buried and it would like all other bodies have decomposed, while Mary, like all the dead in Christ, waited for the resurrection of the dead.

For Catholics, and those who believe like them however, the BV Mary’s body was ‘assumed’ that it is taken up into heaven without suffering the decay that is common to all mortal bodies. It is important to note that Catholics believe Mary was ‘assumed’. This was not something she did herself, but something God did for her. Now here in heaven, next to her Son, she reigns as the Queen of Heaven.

Basically, then, what it comes down to is whether there is any on-going role for the BV Mary after her ‘dormition’, that is, her death. Protestants are increasingly willing to honour Mary as an example of discipleship and to acknowledge her obedience to God’s Word in bearing Jesus. But no more. Many Christians, however, want to go further and see her assumption into heaven as the beginning of a new ministry of intercession and care for believers.

Does it matter? It does if you are a Roman Catholic as it is the official teaching of the Church. It does if you are a Protestant who sees any mention of the BV Mary as the first step to idolatry. For others, it remains more of the ‘pious belief’ it was before Pope Pius’ intervention.

Personally, I am sure that our Lady won’t lose any sleep over us not believing in it, not, of course, that she does sleep if the doctrine is true. And I am also sure that our Lord won’t mind us honouring his mother in this way, even if we are hesitant about some of the details of the way it is expressed.

But before it seems like I have fallen into the typical Anglican position of ‘believe what you like as long as you love everyone’, let me say that even if we don’t think the details of the way the assumption is thought of are quite right, and are not happy with language describing Mary as the Queen of Heaven, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss an ongoing role for the BV Mary in the ministry of the Church.

Our Lord said to the Beloved Disciple, who in John’s Gospel is both a historical person and a symbolic figure, ‘Behold your mother.’ In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church convened Vatican II, a Council of the Church to renew its life and teaching, At the end of the Council, it was another Pope, Pope Saint Paul VI, who commended to the Church as a whole the title, ‘Mother of the Church’, for Mary.

For those of us who see an ongoing role for our Lady in the present, this description is a good way to see her. And she is not only the Mother of the Church, but our Mother too. One who prays for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’.

The Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that our Lord shared at Nazareth the ‘life of an earthly home’ and felt and experienced all that mothers experience, as she did when her son went missing in Jerusalem.

So, for example, as we begin a new school year, a strange new school year, we don’t have to worry about whether our concerns for our children are legitimate or not, they are, and they have in the BV Mary someone in heaven who understands exactly how we feel and what we are going through because she went through it herself.

Today, then, we honour her not out of desire to worship her or because we assume something about her that’s not true, but because we value her and her prayers for us as a mother, our mother. And, as we ask others to pray for us here on earth, why not ask the saints in heaven to pray for us too, and who better than she who was ‘full of grace’ and she who all generations call blessed.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


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