The Assumption, 15 Aug 21
When Charles I, King of England until 1649, was on the scaffold outside the Palace of Whitehall just off Trafalgar Square, his final word is reported to be “Remember,” though it’s not terribly clear what he wanted folk to remember. Centuries later, another King of England, George V, apparently had suggested to him on his deathbed that he might spend some time in Bognor Regis recuperating. The King is reported to have said in words I can’t repeat in the pulpit exactly what he thought of the seaside town and with that he died.
It’s surprising how few people are said to have died with profound words on their lips. Bob Marley apparently took his last breath with the words, “Money can’t buy life.” In all honesty, the last thing people should be thinking about in their final moments is how they will be remembered through pithy sayings. They should be preparing to meet their Maker and Redeemer by Confession and receiving the Sacraments.
We celebrate today the end of Mary’s life on earth today. The Church has usually been pretty reluctant to describe what happened at this moment in Mary’s life as “death.” There are two traditions about where it happened: one saying it was in Jerusalem, where the Church of the Dormition stands today on Mount Zion; another saying it was in Ephesus where you can go to this day and see the House where Mary and St John went after the Crucifixion. Interestingly, it is a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims.
In many ways, the main reason for celebrating Mary’s Assumption is given in our second reading. Contrary to so much contemporary thought which sees human beings as completely unrelated to everyone else, we as Christians recognise there is a bond that unites humanity. In that second reading, St Paul is referring to Christ as “the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep.” Through our Baptism, he says elsewhere, we are buried with Christ so that we can be raised with Him (Romans 6:3-4). Paul continues that there is a proper order as to how this fruit of eternal life spreads to “those who belong to Him.” In our Lady’s Assumption we’re celebrating stage two, if you life, of that: the first person to witness to Christ’s presence in her womb, the first to cooperate with the dwelling of God among us, her entry to eternal life is celebrated today.
Notice in that second reading that the phrase “falling asleep” is used. This is the sense of the word “Dormition” used in Eastern Christianity for today’s great feast. When the phrase is used in the Scriptures it is usually but not always referring to death. I guess it’s a bit like the euphemisms we use when people die: we might say “pass away” rather than die or “no longer with us” when we mean dead. It is worth us remembering that is sometimes healthier for us to use the word “death” lest we labour under a false impression of what has actually happened. Sometimes it’s not always the kindest thing to do to skirt around these difficult issues.
However, the first time in the Bible that this phrase “falling asleep” is used, it means something different. You’ll recall in Genesis 2:18-25 that God sees it is not good for Adam to be alone and so “caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman.” This first falling asleep then is by no means final, for Adam will wake again but more than that: it is a creative moment, new life springs from it. As our Lord says elsewhere, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit,” (John 12:24). So, each day we must die to self, our own preoccupations and entitlements and live with a life that looks towards God. Thus will the life of Jesus blossom within us.
The difference between Christ’s Ascension and Mary’s Assumption is given in the different words we use for the two occasions: Jesus ascended by virtue of His power, His own indestructible life, having been raised by the Father. Mary on the other hand is assumed, this is the act of God, fitting in His eyes that the Mother of the Saviour of the world should be seated next to her Son in Heaven. It fulfils the celebratory texts of the Old Testament, such as we heard in our Psalm: “On your right stands the queen, in garments of gold.” This Heavenly court shall have its queen, she’s there though not of her own choosing but because she cooperated with the choice of God. She is full of grace, full of God’s gift.
Perhaps surprisingly when the Church defined the Assumption as a matter of faith, which was less than a hundred years ago, she didn’t really talk about Mary going to Heaven, to a place. Rather the document speaks of her being assumed in to Heavenly Glory. “Where is Heaven?” we might ask. And while a standard understanding of the universe might mean we answer, “up there,” we also now know that whichever billionaire wants to go deepest in to space, furthest away from the earth’s crust, he or she will never get to Heaven in a rocket no matter how much they spend on it! Heaven is not a place in that sense: ultimately it is where God’s will is done perfectly, as we’re reminded in the prayer our Saviour taught: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Essential to our understanding of glory then must be not that it is necessarily a defined place, such as the word Heaven indicates, but rather reveals a relationship of being close to God. The Quaker poet John Whittier put it in the hymn “Immortal Love,” “To turn aside from thee is hell, to walk with thee is Heaven.” This understanding of life after death is helpful when we come to articulate what hell looks like. We have to believe in hell because it is in the Apostles’ Creed as we say at the start of the rosary and at Baptisms: “He descended into Hell,” speaking of our Lord’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Our Lord also speaks of hell in the Scriptures as the place of grinding of teeth. And we have to be realistic that some people do actually want to go to hell, indeed there is an element in all of us that finds hell attractive or we wouldn’t sin. Sin, after all, is the separation of us from God: it is a little hell.
Finally, it’s just worth us noting that in the Assumption Mary is going up to Heavenly glory body and soul. Some human societies and cultures have tended to overemphasise the bodily aspect of post-death journeying and we see this in practices like ancient Egyptians burying people with food and drink for the next stage of the journey; some continue to pour alcohol on the graves of folk, which seems a waste of alcohol apart from anything else! And while we do believe in the Resurrection of the Body and that we will be embodied in Heaven, these pagan rites make the afterlife sound simply like a continuation of the daily grind of this life, which it is not. Equally there is a temptation within religions, including Christianity, to see the soul as sort of imprisoned in the body and when the soul is set free post-death all will be automatically fine. This is not our faith either.
Rather, Heavenly glory because it necessitates proximity to Jesus means rest, peace, light, truth. In the birth of the Saviour, that Kingdom begins to break forth, hence Mary’s song as we heard in the Gospel that some of the nonsense of power and wealth and status in this life is overturned: “he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry He has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.” Here on earth we have to struggle to catch glimpses of that kingdom, though this gift of the Mass helps us in doing that: it is of another world. Mary has that vision perfectly now and she prays for us that we might too.
In Heaven we will express our love for God and His Church with our resurrected body and our soul. We train ourselves to do that through our prayer and through acts of piety and devotion today. Christ’s Resurrection is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, we see Mary being gathered in the harvest today. May we use the time left to us on this earth to prepare our soul and body to give glory to God perfectly in Heaven. Amen.