Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

In the Anglican Church Calendar, August 15 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, however, it 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’.

August 15, 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 the Blessed Virgin Mary that doesn’t also happen to every other believer at the time of their death. The Blessed Virgin Mary, they believe, is no different to us, and so the day will pass without so much of a mention of her by most Protestant churches and believers. 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 the Blessed Virgin 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 Roman Catholics claim, the oldest feast celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary. What Pope Pius XII did was to make it obligatory for Roman Catholics to observe it and to believe in what it celebrates.

It is fair to say that this is one of Protestants’ worst nightmares. Not only do they reject utterly the idea of the Blessed Virgin 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 personally 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 Blessed Virgin 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 Blessed Virgin Mary was herself baptized in the Holy 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’ in a letter to the believers in the Church at Corinth (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, St John tells us, 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 the Apostle 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 apostles in the Gospels form something of an inner core amongst Jesus’ disciples.

But we know literally nothing else for certain about what happened to her after Pentecost. Church tradition is itself divided. One tradition says that the Blessed Virgin Mary died in Jerusalem in the 40s of the first century. 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 Blessed Virgin Mary did not die, but when, as Pope Pius XII put it, the ‘earthly course of her life was finished’ that 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 XII intended. No less a figure than Pope St John Paul II, 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.’ (General Audience, Wednesday, 25 June 1997)

What seems certain, then, and not in dispute today, is that ‘Mary of Nazareth’ did die, although many prefer to refer to it as ‘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 human bodies, have decomposed, while the Blessed Virgin Mary, like all the dead in Christ, waited for the resurrection of the dead.

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

Basically, then, what it comes down to is whether there is any on-going role for the Blessed Virgin Mary after her ‘dormition’, that is, after her death. Protestants are increasingly willing to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as an example of discipleship and to acknowledge her obedience to God’s Word in bearing Jesus. But that and no more. Many believers, however, want to go further and see her assumption into heaven as the beginning for her 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 Blessed Virgin Mary as the first step to idolatry. For others, it remains more of the ‘pious belief’ it was before Pope Pius XII’s intervention.

Personally, I am sure that our Lady herself won’t lose any sleep over us not believing in her assumption, 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 are nice to everyone’, let me say that even if we don’t think the details of the way the assumption is often 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 Blessed Virgin Mary in the ministry of the Church.

I don’t know if any of you watched the video Megan Markle made for her 40th birthday. In it, she describes her ‘40x40 initiative’. She is encouraging 40 of her friends to give 40 minutes of their time to help and support women getting back into the workforce after the pandemic.

At about the same time last year, at the Private Asset Manager’s awards, the event’s founder, James Anderson talked about how well working from home because of the pandemic was going. He said that it should help firms re-engage ‘with a highly competent, skilled workforce that currently has been sitting at home twiddling its thumbs and looking after the next generation’ meaning mothers.

It is interesting to compare the different reactions to what they both said. Megan’s words were seen as a feminist statement, while James’ words were condemned as unbelievably sexist. In fact, although they expressed themselves somewhat differently, they were both saying exactly the same thing. Both were working on the assumption that a woman’s place should not be in the home raising children, but in the workforce competing alongside men.

Now where women see their place is, in my opinion at least, entirely up to them, and it not up to either Megan or James to tell them. Indeed, the reality is that many women simply don’t have a choice; they have to work outside the home in paid employment every hour there is just to survive and put food on the table. However, what is somewhat more sinister is not just the issue of geography, but the negative implication of both Megan and James’ remarks concerning motherhood.

Heaven forbid, according to James, that women should find looking after the next generation more fulfilling than looking after rich clients most of whom just happen to be men. And heaven forbid, according to Megan, that women should prefer to stay at home with their children rather than pursuing the dream of becoming a celebrity princess.

But what is it that has led to two such disparate figures feeling the need, by implication at least, to denigrate motherhood? And they are by no means alone in the way they think. If you think that is extreme, ask yourself what would be said to a girl at school if, when asked what she wanted to do with her life, she said she wanted to have children and be a mother. ‘Yes’, but what do you want to do?’ would most likely be the reply.

How then have we got to where we are in how we see motherhood and where does feminism fit into this? It is customary for social commentators to talk about feminism in terms of waves. Each of these waves has dramatically changed the position of women in society. Over the past hundred years or so, for example, women have achieved access to education and right to vote. The availability of contraception and the legalization of abortion has made it possible for women to have the sexual freedom that men have always had. Equal pay and increased opportunities have allowed women to pursue careers once only open to men. As a consequence, instead of a woman’s place being seen as in the home raising children, it is now seen as being outside the home competing with men on equal terms.

However, despite all the legislation and newly found sexual freedom, women still struggle to reach the same levels of pay and positions in the workforce as men. In secular society, the glass ceiling may be cracked, but it is still in place. The problem, then, is now seen by many feminists as being about male power and institutionalized violence against women, which exists in patriarchal structures deeply embedded in society.

The result of all this is that no matter how much we may talk about how important children are, motherhood itself is seen as a problem to be solved rather than a calling to be embraced. For a woman, having children is viewed as a disability that they have to find ways to overcome if they are to be taken seriously.

How, though, have these social and political developments in secular society affected the Church?

Essentially, the Church has mirrored what has been happening in society. Feminists in and out of the Church have criticized the Church for being both sexist and misogynist. The feminist critique of the Church has often been justified. When I was lecturing at College in the UK, I taught a course on Women and Christianity. One of my aims with my students was to show that the Church has not valued women as part of the body of Christ in the way it should. It wasn’t difficult. The Church has all too often in the past both justified and been responsible for the abuse of women.

On the positive side, the Church has begun to realize this. On the negative side, however, is that the Church’s response to past failure has been simply to adopt the approach of society around us. This is to be seen, for example, in the campaign for the ordination of women, the demand for women to be promoted to positions of authority in the Church, and the calls for an end to what is seen as sexism in our liturgy and language about God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary herself has not come out of this well. Amongst theologians of both sexes, there has been a questioning of the part the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary has played in the oppression of women. The figure of Mary is seen as passive, submissive, and subservient. Mary, it is argued, didn’t choose her role, but was given it, accepted it, and limited herself to it. The accusation is that the Church for its part has used this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary to ensure that women behave like her.

As a result, people have turned away from the Blessed Virgin Mary as a role model and have turned instead to another Mary, St Mary Magdalene. St Mary Magdalene is portrayed in feminist iconography as a woman who is active, independent, and assertive. She is seen as someone whose image and example is challenging, liberating, and empowering. The modern image of St Mary Magdalene, in the way it presented, is, of course, a false image and not a true representation of the historical Mary Magdalene, but, no matter, it is one that has gripped people’s imagination at both a popular and scholarly level.

There is much more that could and should be said, but as we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, I simply want to make a plea for us to reclaim the image of our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as an icon for both women and men. ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’ (Galatians 4:4), and the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than seeing her role as limiting, saw it as the highest promotion possible: far higher than becoming an asset manager for the rich or a media princess.

The Blessed Virgin Mary said that God demonstrated in his choice of her that he was the God who puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek (Luke 1:52). We think on the Feast of the Assumption of God’s exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how, in his choice and exaltation of her to be the ‘mother of God’, God has also exalted the role of mother that she accepted for herself. In Mary’s fiat - her words, ‘Let it be unto me according to your word’ - the Blessed Virgin Mary, for those who follow her, not only broke, but smashed in pieces the glass ceiling of human oppression.

So, to women who are mothers or who are contemplating becoming one, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to pursue whatever career you feel God is calling you to, but not to be afraid to value motherhood over it. And to the men, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to stop seeing motherhood as a handicap that holds women back and makes them less valuable either in the home or in workplace.

As believers, we need to stop seeing motherhood as a disability to be overcome, but as a calling to be valued and affirmed. This doesn’t mean going back to seeing a woman’s place as being in the home, unless, that is, the woman herself sees it as being there. It does mean that the Church, at least, should affirm the dignity of women as women and that includes a woman’s capacity to give birth and to be a mother.

Our Lord said to the Beloved Disciple, who in St 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, in her acceptance of the angel’s announcement to her, provides us with a model of obedience. What she said concerning her Son to the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, she says now to us all, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’ (John 2:5). The Blessed Virgin Mary always directs our attention and obedience to her Son.

We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, then, not out of desire to worship her or because we assume something about her that’s not true, but because we value her and value her prayers for us as a mother, our mother, as together we seek to follow her Son.

May she, who is ‘full of grace’ and who all generations call blessed, pray for us.

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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