Assumption of Mary, 16 August 2020
If you’ve seen any of the Oliver Twist films, they always have a happy ending. Oliver is freed from the evil influences of Fagin and Bill Sykes. Mr Brownlow adopts the boy he’s grown to love, who's been found innocent of the charges previously made against him. Cue uplifting music. The ending of the novel is a little more grim, however. First, Bill Sykes murders Nancy his girlfriend who grasses him up. And this was a powerful moment for Dickens, a death not much described in the book but one which with all his heart and soul Dickens would perform by himself to thousands flocking to his shows in the UK and the United States. Second, Bill Sykes is then shot by the police. Third, Fagin, who oversees the boy criminals, is condemned to death by a court and eventually hanged, the prospect of which drives him slowly mad. The book concludes describing the simple memorial stone of Agnes, Oliver Twist's mother who died in child birth, who might otherwise have been forgotten.
We cut out a lot of death from our lives, even in these days of pandemic when so many have tragically died. It’s why the practice of seeing someone’s body after their death is quite a healthy thing to do. It’s only in the last hundred years that large swathes of British society have started not seeing the bodies of those who die. As Christians we should not fear death; we can bellow with St Paul: “Where, O death, is thy sting?” The sting of death is numbed because of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Today, on the Assumption of our Lady, we celebrate the blossoming of that triumph in the life of she who bore Him in the womb, Mary Most Holy. She is spared the pains of sin, and the pains of death for she knew no sin in her life. She cooperated with God’s predestining will to the extent that she could indeed be blessed among all women, as was His plan.
We are all called to eternal life. But let’s just pause and think about this for a while. As we get older, one of the difficult things is that we see people we love die. Immortality then becomes a rather lonely and sad affair. But this is not the sort of immortality for the Christian. Our eternal life means a closer union with God and therefore also with all those within His Body, the Church. Death, however it might appear to be, will not be a lonely affair. The Lord sends His angels to have charge over us and the last task of our Guardian Angel is to guide our soul through the cleansing of sin we will need after death so that we can then fully partake of the crown of righteousness reserved for us. No matter how little glory there seems to be for our life on earth, this glory we’re called to share in will never pass away.
One of the aspects of death many of us struggle with is the loss of control. Those who argue for euthanasia are arguing that human beings should have greater control over their deaths. And it’s one of the reasons it’s wrong; because we’re not meant to have control over our deaths. The sufferings Jesus endured are usually referred to as His Passion. ‘Passion’ in this context comes from a Latin word in the Creed - “passus” which we translate as ‘He suffered.’ It also communicates how Jesus becomes passive during these last hours before His death. He’s arrested by the soldiers; dragged off by the crowds; beaten by his captives; questioned by Pilate and the Chief Priests; has a Cross placed upon His shoulders; is nailed to it and then ceases to breathe; the lifeless body of the Son of God is then bourn by those He loves to the tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea. We are to bear His Body in our lives too.
Jesus empties Himself of all His control. He’s not concerned with what He could do: He could call down ten legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). But He doesn’t. His vocation then is to suffer and die so that we all people, including Mary His own Mother, might share in His Resurrection and eternal life. In Heaven, we won’t be able to control anything either. The elect, we are told, have no need for lamp, for the Lamb is our lamp (Revelation 22:5). But sometimes it’s quite nice to have a lamp of our own because we can turn it off when we want; we don’t have to share it with others; it’s mine. But that’s not the way of Heaven.
Mary’s Assumption is her final act of surrender. She has said yes to the will of God in agreeing to be Mother of His Son: “Let it be as you have said.” She has stayed with Him even through to the Cross. She now has to let go of all her own presuppositions about what her life and its end will look like, as she is carried body and soul by angels to Heaven. We heard our Lady in the Gospel sing the Magnificat, the name given to that song, which begins, “My soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord.” It’s so important that it is said every day at Evening Prayer. In it Mary says that God “has looked upon His lowly handmaid.” He loved her and chose her. She was a teenager. She was not married. She was part of subjugated race. She was from a backwater. She’d not been to school. But God chose her. In God choosing her and drawing her to Him body and soul at the moment of the end of her life on earth, He was showing just how much He had chosen her. Indeed, is not this the ultimate meaning of our Lord’s words elsewhere, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12)?
Life will be full of the little surrenders that we have to make to the will of another. Some of them will be specifically about our faith: following the commandments, prioritising worship, loving God and our neighbour. And some of the little surrenders won’t be particularly about our faith but if we face them with the right spirit we can ensure we have Mary’s lowliness in our own heart. Life is not about us getting our own way nor about safeguarding our life such that we fail to live fully. Life is fully known in Heaven with eternal life in Jesus Christ, when we’ve surrendered ourselves to His will.
We heard in Psalm 44 of the queen arrayed in garments of gold, spun with golden thread. Yes, we’re to think sumptuous; yes, we’re to think desirable; yes, we’re to think everyone wants one. Mary the Mother of God is not adorned in the latest fashion accessory, nor does she spend huge amounts on her clothes, nor does she spend all her time thinking about what she’ll wear. The garments spun in gold she is wearing are the good works she offers, her doing what God wanted her to do, rather than following her own agenda. This garment is bound by the prayers she offers in Heaven now; it is the lullabies she sang our Lord as she rocked Him to sleep. It is the love and mercy of the Father.
Back to Agnes’ memorial tablet in their local church. She was the mother of Oliver Twist and died in a workhouse, a shame to her family, and alone apart from the old dears who steal the one thing she had, a little necklace. She couldn’t even be given a proper burial because no one would pay for it. There can be harshness to human society! Dickens concludes, “If the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth, to visit spots hallowed by love - the love beyond the grave - of those whom they knew in life, I believe that the shade of Agnes sometimes hovers round that solemn nook. I believe it none the less because that nook is in a Church, and she was weak and erring.” Mary’s beauty comes not from a fragility that caused her to sin, but from a fragility that paved her way for God to do great things in her life. Today we celebrate Mary going up to Heaven, a sign that Christ’s Resurrection is not a message of blind optimism but of a concrete hope, at work in the lives of us today, who can call on Mary as our Mother too. Alleluia!