MARY – SESSION 15

INTRO We come this evening to the third significant doctrinal definition concerning Mary – the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Her identity as ‘Theotokos’, ‘Mother of God’, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven are all implications of that first ‘Yes’ to God, when Mary, Miriam, Mariam, the ‘Exalted One’ abandoned herself totally to God as the servant (or ‘handmaid’) of the Divine loving design for the world. Each doctrinal statement is a making explicit of Mary’s role in God’s saving work in Christ Jesus. Each statement speaks both of the redeeming work of Christ in her own life and also what it means for the disciple to yield lovingly to God’s work of Grace in our lives.  I would like us to ponder a few moments the Eastern Icon of the Dormition of Mary (the ‘falling asleep’). All the apostles gathered, the angels also – Mary in the midst of the Church on earth and the heavenly host! Risen Christ carrying Mary in his hands to heaven, into the fullness of Life.

[1] The Assumption of Mary. While defined as an essential doctrine of there Church only in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, it has been the belief of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from very early days and was celebrated as a Feast of the Church before 500AD. This suggests that it was widely held at the same time as the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. In fact historically this belief has been held and celebrated more universally, with less dispute and for far longer than the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Assumption is the principal Feast of Mary. Many of the medieval churches in England dedicated to ‘St Mary’ were in fact dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, the first in Britain being built in the sixth century in Glastonbury at the summit of Glastonbury Tor. The overwhelming number of medieval or more ancient churches in England that were built on hill tops carry the dedication either of St Michael the Archangel or of St Mary. These hills were often sites of pagan worship and/or occult demon worship.  Early missionaries wanted to ‘purify’ these sites (banish the ‘demons’) as well as Christianise them and so they carry either of these dedications. Michael is the Archangel in Revelations who battles against and defeats the Devil and his hordes and Mary was associated both the Woman in Revelations 12 and the crushing of the serpents head in Genesis. Although the formal definition in the Catholic Church was not until 1950, it was a belief universally held since the early centuries in both Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

[2] What is defined: ‘The Immaculate Virgin, preserved from all stain of original sin, 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 sin and death’  (Pope Pius XII ‘Munificentissimus 1950). Her Assumption is linked to her Immaculate Conception, which itself is in virtue of her role as ‘Theotokos’, Mother of God. Once more, this doctrine is not primarily about glorifying Mary but about how the disciple participates in and expresses (witnesses) the life and work of Christ Jesus. Mary is the greatest example of the 16th Century Reformer Martin Luther’s fundamental teaching – ‘sola gratia’ – ‘grace alone’. All is the work of the free gift of God’s grace in Mary, in us. As disciples we are gradually transformed in Christ to the point that upon death ‘we shall see him as He really is and become like Him’ (1 John 2: 1-2). The Immaculate Conception is the expression of Mary’s total yielding to God’s grace (‘Rejoice most highly favoured’ Luke 1: 28), God’s redeeming love in Christ from her first moments. This bore the fruit of her womb (Luke 1: 42) – the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, in whom we are all reborn to a new and eternal life. This New Life, this oneness of communion with Christ, this immersion into the life of the Holy Trinity through baptism, comes to its fulness as we journey through death into the Resurrection. Then our identification with Jesus Christ, our participation in His life is completed as we see God face to face and are truly risen to our eternal life in Him. This is our firm belief, this is what we celebrate at every Requiem Mass and every year at Easter and on All Souls Day. We are heirs of the Father, co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8: 17); we beloved daughters and sons of God filled with the vision of His glory and transformed in His love, becoming our true selves in the Resurrection. 

[3] Yet again, Mary’s Assumption is God’s pledge and promise of our Resurrection. She is the fulness of discipleship which finds its fulfilment in Resurrection and an eternity in the presence of God, transformed into the total love that God is in whose image and likeness we have been created (Genesis 1: 27). She is the Sign and Model of the Church, not only in our Earthly Pilgrimage of Faith as disciples; not only in our Mission to bring Christ to birth in every age and culture and people: but most of all in the fulfilment of our lives and the life of the Church in the glory of God’s presence and infinite love for all eternity. This is what is meant by describing Mary as the ‘Eschatological Sign’ of the Church and Creation. Just as Mary was there at the beginning (the birth of Christ – Luke 2: 6), at the commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Marriage Feast of Cana – John 2: 1-12), there at the foot of the Cross (John 19: 25-27) and finally at the outpouring of the Spirit in the upper room of Pentecost (Acts 1: 12-14 & 2: 1-4) that say the birth of the Church as the Body of Christ – she is the sign and promise of ‘mission accomplished’, for her sharing in the Resurrection of Jesus is the pledge of ours too. And not only ours – but the gathering of all Creation into the Resurrected body of Christ, into the final victory of Life over death in the consummation of All things in Christ. Indeed ‘Blessed is she who believed the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’ (Luke 1: 45): the promise made through her to all humanity is indeed fulfilled in our sister, Mary – and therefore we too can believe the promise! 

[4] Yesterday we reflected on the Ascension of the Lord, imaged as the conquering Hero returning to King with all the captives in tribute. We are ‘captured’ for freedom not slavery! Mary’s Assumption is the expression and sign of that Ascended, glorified Christ carrying all humanity, indeed all creation into the fulness of our destiny in the ‘liberty of the Children of God’ in the eternity of the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’. Mary’s role as the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ the servant of Christ’s saving work, is to show what is means to be ‘saved’ to be ‘redeemed’ to live the life of the Spirit forever. She never ceases to be the Disciple, from her conception to her Resurrection – the God-given sign of the fulfilment of God’s promise to us of ‘life in all it fulness’ (John 10). If we want to know what it means to live out our baptism, look at Mary and see the Redemption of Christ in or sister, fellow disciple and Pilgrim, our Mother. Never the redeemer, always the redeemed – that is Mary’s greatness and the gift of God to us.

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