The Assumption, Dormition of Our Lady
In many places, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary the mother of Jesus, which is also known as the Dormition (falling asleep) by our Eastern Churches, is kept on the date it falls, but in other places if Sunday follows or precedes then there is a transfer of the festival, so in England and Wales we celebrate it this year on the Sunday!
Our Lady, Notre Dame, the Blessed Mother, the BVM, the Immaculate, or in old English use, St Mary the Virgin, to use many of the ways in which we identify her, is deeply embedded in Catholic and Orthodox faith and piety. She is honoured throughout the world and her image is found in many different guises.
One thing that those who see Christianity as white European colonialism, need to take a look at, is how she has been and is portrayed in art, not least through the subject of Mother and Child. She has been adapted, inculturated and belongs to us all.
When such a fuss was being made about the Pachamamma images thrown into the Tiber during last years Amazonian Synod, few people took the trouble to see many more, and much earlier examples of Our Lady appropriating older images in order to act as a transmitter of Gospel truth. Think of the many ancient Black Madonnas we have, not all of them are simply the result of candle soot and incense patination, they emerge as links between the deeper wider world of the sacred and the power of Christ working through the human agency of his mother Mary!
This brings me to the heart of my reflection on Mary's Assumption. The second reading of the Eucharist takes Paul's words in I Corinthians 15 as a meditation, for me particularly these words:
" But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits* of those who have fallen asleep* For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being.
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life". (I Cor 15:20-22).
We miss the extraordinary potency of this feast if we let the accretions of piety; art and poetry completely take over what is essentially a simple, stark fact. That Mary died as we shall die. There is no easy way out of the Assumption for it is as it is; death is Mary's lot as it is ours, as it was for Christ who descended into death.
Yes there is that other side of the flip chart of piety, which says all, will be made well, that is what the icons show us in Christ holding up the tiny image of Mary's soul to take it with him into paradise regained. That is what other artists try to show in their image of her, rising into the heavens to be greeted by Christ, but we really do need to be careful, the real Mary dies our death and in Christ is brought to life. To the end her rugged ministry in humility as a pointer, the route to her son continues.
Geoffrey Hill's Seven Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres, a form of homage to the poet and mystic Charles Péguy amongst others, puts her place in the theology of salvation like this:
'O dulcis Virgo, you are the stained world's
Ransom, bear its image, live through your
Perpetual exile in its courts of prayer.
'This is the carnal rose that re-enfolds
Heaven into earth.' They say you are disposed
To acts of grace: tumblers and holy fools.
Child-saints rejoice you, small immaculate souls,
And mundane sorrows mystically espoused.'
This is a different Mary from the oft times cloned and saccharine person that we project all kinds of fairy tale imagery onto, and that is how we need to approach her Assumption, as a moment that captures our moment of death, as a gift of consolation that if we truly become as children, the little ones God really loves, and walk the way of the prophet Micah acting justly, loving tenderly and kindly, and walking as friends of God, then she, who loved Christ on Earth can reach out in prayerful love for each and every one of us, by commending, interceding, pleading for us.
That for me is one of the best images I have of Mary who is also our sister in human connectivity, but this could only be if she does what we will do, dies and is called back to risen life in Christ.
A year ago I preached a sermon for the Religious of the Assumption on the feast in Kensington Square, at a moment of change for their new Province, where some inner sense of mone that we are going to face new moments in the Church played out, Covid 19 has only reinforced this, so I quote myself, quoting Peguy:
'We now let go, of a past as Mary did and helps us to do, to die a little to self, but to gain more than the whole world: here is Charles Péguy, who sums up this feast as one of hope:
"But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
That is surprising.
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising and its by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I'm surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force."
So be it, Amen
(Charles Péguy b 1873 d 1914 Marne - The Portal of the Mystery of Hope)
I Believe in God - A Meditation on the Apostles' Creed - Paul Claudel published 1963
There are things that Christ Himself does not understand unless His Mother whispers them in His ear. Mary, you are our living tongue, you are our elo-quence without end. You alone can talk face to face with God! Only you can divine our thoughts, express our souls, pray our prayers, desire our desires, cry our cries, suffer our pain . . . For that Word which begets all things is ever with you in order that you may express all things, in order that you may whisper in the Father's ear the names of all who are capable of being His sons. And if He pretends not to see, your skill insures that His groping fingers will find His Lamb!
11th Century Litany of Mary
Greatest of Marys
Greatest of Women
Mother of Eternal Glory
Mother of the Golden Light
Honour of the Sky
Temple of the Divinity
Fountain of the Gardens
Serene as the Moon
Bright as the Sun
Temple of the Living God
Light of Nazareth
Beauty of the World
Queen of Life
Ladder of Heaven
Mother of God.
Fr Robin is an Eastern Rite Catholic Chaplain for Melkites in the UK. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter: @RobinGibbons2
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