18 May 2008 at :00 am
Most Anglicans do not think of May as Mary’s month. Some of us who were brought up on the Book of Common Prayer hardly noticed the five Marian feasts in the Calendar at all. The Prayer Book Calendar picks out three because there is a basis for them in the New Testament: the Annunciation (Lady Day), the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, forty days after his birth (Candlemas). It also notes two events that must have taken place: the conception of Mary and the birth of Mary. But there is no feast to mark the end of Mary’s life. The collect (or special prayer for the day) that most clearly focuses on Mary is not said on any of the Marian Feasts: it is the Collect for Christmas Day. This beautifully expresses what Anglicans have consistently affirmed about Mary:
Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
The key for Anglicans is the Incarnation: God took human nature in Jesus. Jesus was conceived and brought to birth by Mary, who was, and some would say remained, a virgin. Though this emphasis on the virginity of Mary has been interpreted as anti-sex, it is much more about the birth of Jesus being specifically and uniquely brought about through the action of God. Christians have asked, if the birth of Jesus was specifically and uniquely brought about through the action of God, doesn’t that mean that Mary was specifically and uniquely prepared by God to play her part in God’s plan? The answer is yes; and this is what I want to explore next week. For today, I want to reflect on the end of Mary’s life.
The New Testament tells us nothing about the end of Mary’s life. The last picture we have of Mary is of her in the upper room, with the disciples and the earthly family of Jesus, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit:
When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 2:13-14)
Christians were from a very early stage extremely interested to find out more about what happened to Mary. Elaborate stories were circulating by the fifth century, but the first we have from a Western writer is this, which Gregory of Tours, who died in 594, says he got from an earlier Greek source:
The Apostles scattered through different countries to preach the word of God. Subsequently, blessed Mary finished the course of this life and was summoned from the world; and all the Apostles were gathered together, each from his own area, at her home. On hearing that she was to be taken up from the world, they kept watch with her. All at once her Lord came with angels, took her soul, delivered it to Michael the Archangel, and disappeared. At daybreak, however, the Apostles lifted up the body together with the funeral-bed, placed it in a tomb, and kept watch over it, in readiness for the Lord's coming. And again, all at once the Lord stood by them and ordered the holy body taken up and carried on a cloud to paradise. There, reunited with the soul, it rejoices with his elect and enjoys eternity's blessings which will never end.
This legend was the basis of the traditional teaching that at the end of her life Mary fell asleep, as we all do, but was then assumed – or taken up - body and soul into heaven. This teaching is celebrated in the worship of the Orthodox Church, who keep the feast of the Dormition, or Falling Asleep, of Mary. For a long time, the Assumption of Mary has been celebrated in the West on the same day, August 15. Only in 1950 did the Roman Catholic Church define the teaching that, when the course of Mary’s earthly life was complete, she was taken up (or assumed) body and soul into heaven. The Reformers reacted against the celebration of this very popular feast because they thought the Western Church was far too focused on Mary and not enough on Jesus – added to which there was nothing about the end of Mary’s life in the New Testament. This is why there is nothing about the end of Mary’s life in The Book of Common Prayer. Only very recently have Anglicans round the world begun to make August 15 a Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, without saying exactly what it is about Mary we celebrate on that day.
This is typically Anglican: since the New Testament says nothing about the beginning and end of Mary’s life, and nothing was said by the early Church, Anglicans leave it to local churches and to individual believers to work out what we believe about the beginning and end of Mary’s life. So what can we say this morning?
It is clear from the New Testament that Mary was like all of us: she was a daughter of Adam and Eve, a human being who needed, as we all do, to be redeemed – set free from bondage to sin and death - through the death of her Son. In one respect, though, she was not like us, because the Holy Spirit chose her to play a unique role in the divine plan. Christians agree that, in the words of the Magnificat, all generations have called, and will call, her ‘blessed’. As the mother of Jesus, Mary gave her own flesh that God might take flesh in this world. So the question can rightly to be asked: what became of that flesh, as Mary aged and came eventually to the end of her life? Those who know the Psalms will recall the verse that says, ‘Thou wilt not … let thy holy one see corruption’ (Ps 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27). It is because of this verse that a body which does not decay has been seen as a sign of holiness. In the Old Testament there are stories of particularly holy people like Enoch and Elijah who, at the end of their lives, were swept up into the immediate presence of God. Could anything less have happened, Christians have thought, to the person who was the Mother of God Incarnate?
Thinking like this has been supported by two further ideas. The first is that Mary is ‘everywoman’. She gives us the perfect image of what it is to be a Christian woman or man. Her destiny is the same as the destiny of every Christian woman and man, who will in the end be one with Christ in his glory: ‘Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel and afterwards thou wilt receive me to glory’ (Ps 73:24). Some would emphasise that we have to sleep first in the dust before the end of all things; but others say it makes no difference because after death time doesn’t exist anyway. The picture we have of Mary in the Acts of the Apostles, with the disciples and with the earthly family of Jesus, is the picture of how it will be – and in some sense already is – at the end of time. Mary, the apostles and the saints will be there with Christ, and we too shall be with them.
Mary shows us the destiny of the whole Church. As followers of Jesus, we are to be the Body of Christ – so in this sense Mary is the mother of us all. The destiny of the Church is the destiny of Mary and the destiny of Mary is the destiny of the Church. The New Testament tells us that the destiny of the Church is to be one with Christ in the glory of the Father (cf. Eph 1:11-14). Those who have been baptized into Christ have already come to share the new life, the life of heaven, with the apostles and saints, including the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For myself, I find it very helpful that the Eastern Church speaks of the dormition of Mary. The novelist Julian Barnes has recently written a memoir, which is also a meditation on death. He calls it Nothing to be Frightened of. ‘I don’t believe in God’, he says, ‘but I miss him’. Death for him is ultimate extinction. What a wonderful gift if death comes, in the words of Francis of Assisi, as ‘sister death’, as a peaceful falling asleep in Christ. What comes next will be for God to determine. How can we really understand or speak about what comes after death? – even though language about resurrection and glory and heaven points to the eternal reality of God’s love and God’s presence. For me, the feast of Mary’s dormition is a feast that celebrates what it is to fall asleep in Christ with complete, childlike trust, with the hope of seeing and knowing the One in whom for all of us, including the blessed Mother of God Incarnate, there is eternal life.