Assumption, 14 Aug 22
When I worked in London twenty years ago I got to know a homeless guy called Richard. We’d bump in to each other and chat and one day our conversation started on London Bridge. It must have been around 5pm because all the city workers were marching across London Bridge in their pin-stripped outfits: yes these were the days when people went in to something called an office to work! It was hard to hear him amid the noise as he was sitting on the floor stooped down and I was standing up so I thought the best solution was to sit down next to him on the floor of London Bridge and as I lowered myself down the world changed. All I could see was people’s knees. I almost became invisible: no one noticed me. That little movement changed my perspective.
Cardinal Tagle - one to watch because they say he might be the next pope - spoke to the bishops at the Lambeth conference last weekend. I met him once in Lourdes and he is a mesmerising speaker so I listened to the recording. He spoke of being in a refugee camp and speaking to someone who was helping out there. He assumed initially she was employed to do so but eventually discovered she was a volunteer. “Why do you do this volunteering?” he asked. “Because my ancestors were refugees so I have refugee DNA in me.”
I think these two stories remind us of a couple things. First, our shared identity even with those whose experiences seem to different: the volunteer worker in a refugee camp linked to refugees, my eighteen year old self sat alongside a homeless guy. All it takes is for someone to express something which crosses the divide. This is to be part of our life as Christians as we follow Jesus Christ who became poor that we might become rich, who emptied Himself that we may raised with Him to eternal life, who associated with the outcast that they might become citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, who died that on the Cross that we sinners might be forgiven. Crossing over divisions creates friends in the halls of Heaven. Speak, my friends, to those who seem different to you that we might grow together in the image of Christ.
Discovering this shared identity means we have something pertinent to learn from the homeless person and the refugee. First, we are meant to be slightly ill at ease here on earth. We have died with Christ and so, as Paul writes to the Colossians 3:1-3, we should see ourselves where Christ is, reigning in the Heavens. We should set our minds on the things of the life in Heaven. When people grumble about this or worry about that, we should - we do hopefully - have a slightly “Computer says no” response because all we have before our eyes is the joy of Heaven, the prospect of gazing for eternity on the blessed face of our Saviour Jesus Christ and worshipping Him. We are to be pilgrims and therefore at odds with this world. The refugee will go from one country to another yet remain someone from their original culture, with all the social norms of their country of origin, language, diet, expectations, religion etc. Through our rebirth we have a different culture, that of the Christian Church, whose head is our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherever we find ourselves that identity still stands true, the identity of a different country, the kingdom of Heaven. So, we’re not going to take His name in vain as a result, we are going to keep the Lord’s day holy, we will do things and not do things with our bodies, our money and our time because we are part of this different culture.
The second thing we learn, particularly from refugees, is a better approach to suffering. We are confronted quite often now in the media with images of what refugees put themselves through so as to achieve a better life for them. There will be a variety of suggestions here concerning the response the Government should make to those attempts, but we can all be full of admiration for what they are willing to go through. Suffering becomes a way of life for refugees. Often they have suffered at the hands of others but this will not lead them to shy away from suffering. And all this because the driving force behind those those who cross the channel or who are in camps is that they hope it will lead to a better future, at the very least no worse than the past. The end goal before them is worth suffering for here and now. How insightful this is for us as Christians, for us who are to take up our Cross and follow Christ, in other words to embrace the suffering we face now for we know it will not be the last word. The Cross, its humiliation and its glory, whether refugees know it or not, is fulfilled in their actions. When Mary, the Mother of God, stood at the foot of the Cross and saw her Son dying there for the salvation of the world, she too knew the cost of the Cross and of following the Saviour.
These themes nicely come together on this beautiful feast of the Assumption. Mary goes up to Heaven at the end of her life; there is a reticence to speak of her dying as such. And we celebrate this Assumption because we are members of the Body of Jesus, the Body which she gave birth to, and so she is our Mother, just as we are united with the homeless and refugees though their experiences may be widely different to our own. In the second reading we heard St Paul speaking of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ as a first fruits. It then spreads to all who have the life of Christ at work in them “all of them in their proper order,” Paul writes. Well, Mary is the first in line to receive a share in that inheritance thanks to the death and Resurrection of her Son. We have this same DNA in us, a spiritual DNA that means we will share - thanks be to God - in this Heavenly glory body and soul. This is the triumph sung by the voice from Heaven: “Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for His Christ.”
Sharing in this glory in Heaven can only be accomplished having shared with Christ’s sufferings. On 15th September each year, the Church celebrates Mary standing at the foot of the Cross, a sword piercing her soul, as foretold by Simeon when Jesus was but 40 days old (St Luke 2:35). Yes, Mary knew the life of suffering, of fear: was she not also greatly disturbed by the Archangel Gabriel appearing before her? (St Luke 1:29). We should embrace suffering too and not seek to avoid it. When being faithful to Christ means some inconvenience in our life, or having to go without some sleep, some food or some bit of enjoyment, or some money we should rejoice that we are to share in this little cross which the Lord has laid before us.
Part of Mary’s sufferings is to be ignored by so many, even those who love her Son. Yes there are those who say this Feast of the Assumption should not be celebrated because it’s not in the Bible and that Mary has such a fleeting mention in Scripture. But is this not precisely the point, my brothers and sisters, of being poor and marginalised, a refugee in fact: you’re not noticed. Mary is actually there following Jesus all the time: at the Lord’s birth as Heaven comes down to earth; at His first miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (St John 2:1-11); on another occasion outside the house where Jesus is speaking and when His disciples say she is there (St Mark 3:31); at the Cross when so many others have fled in fear. She’s there, but she’s never the main the story. It’s always her Son. So, we can learn from those we try to ignore on the High Road and whom society tries to forget like beggars and refugees, we can learn from them what it is to be a follower of Jesus because it is to be less about us and more about Him. When we are afraid of doing what is right because people might think less of us, we are to think of those homeless people, the refugees, think too of Mary, and remember that what people think about us doesn’t matter. It’s what God knows about us that matters and He knows everything.
Let us rejoice then in the great family of the human race, rich and poor alike. Let us be glad that God invites all people to share in the Heavenly glory of His only Begotten Son. Today we see Mary being assumed body and soul in to Heaven, welcomed by angels. We pray our church will always be a place where those who suffer and the outcast will be welcome. And may we embrace the sufferings of this world that we may share in the Lord’s glory. Remember how wonderful the vocation is that we have each been given to worship the maker of all things, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.