Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2013
15 August 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
In many Orthodox Churches, there will be a large mosaic or painted icon in the apse behind the Sanctuary which is an image of the Virgin Mary, her arms raised aloft in prayer, with the image of the Christchild in front of her chest, facing the viewer. This image, known colloquially as Our Lady of the Sign, is often accompanied by the legend, Πλατυτέρα των Ουρανών “She who is more spacious than the heavens.” Poetically, the one who has contained the uncontainable Creator of all, the Eternal Word of the Father Jesus Christ, is more spacious than the heavens as God takes her flesh to become human. God has made all the space in the world for human beings to know and love him.
The Feast of the Assumption of Mary, or Dormition as it is known in the Orthodox and Oriental East, was traditionally celebrated on 15th August in pre-Reformation England, as it is today in the Roman Catholic Church. The Book of Common Prayer, endowed with the spirit of the reformers and due to a lack of patristic consensus about the end of Mary’s life, opted for the theologically safer date of the 8th September, our Lady’s birthday, as the principal Anglican feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But, in common with the very early liturgical tradition that saints are principally commemorated on the day of their death, in other words their heavenly birthday, but also to align ourselves with the weight of Western Christian history, the Anglican Common Worship Calendar now offers 15th August as the principal Feast of the Blessed Virgin. So today, we celebrate Mary, the Godbearer, alive in Christ, as the perfect pattern of Christian discipleship.
We cannot know exactly what happened at the very end of Mary’s life. It probably doesn’t matter very much. There is no universal or authoritative teaching amongst the early witnesses. One pious tradition recalls how the Apostles were all miraculously gathered from their various missions to be at her side as she died, having supported the infant Church in Jerusalem. Traditionally, the Orthodox Churches teach that Mary died a natural death, or fell asleep in Christ, whereas Roman Catholic tradition is divided as to whether Mary died, or somehow was taken immediately into glory. We cannot know; and whilst the formal Roman Catholic teaching about Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven strikes me as a beautiful piece of speculative, mystical theology, it is perhaps better un-defined. What we can proclaim with certainty, with the churches of both East and West, is that Mary’s only place is in the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom. That as the Lord’s first disciple she encourages us onwards, and that the glory she now shares will, in God’s grace, be ours too, because our final destiny is intimately connected with our first calling as Christians. The glory with which Mary is now clothed is no more and no less than we shall know at that last great overwhelming, when we shall share the fullness of Christ’s resurrection with all those who have followed him.
One of the simplest and profoundest truths we realise as we ponder Mary’s witness to Christ, is that God does not simply instrumentalise people – God doesn’t just use us, and then drop us. As St Paul teaches us in his letter to the Romans, God justifies those whom he calls, and those whom God has justified, God will also glorify. Mary’s entrance into glory which we celebrate today is necessarily and radically simply linked to her initial call, when the Archangel Gabriel revealed that she was to be Christ’s mother – that her womb was to be “more spacious than the heavens.” Mary’s relentless “yes” to God, from her bearing of the Christ-child, through to her faithfulness at the cross, and her waiting for the Holy Spirit after the Ascension was an unfolding and deepening pattern of love, as her own life and God’s plan for the world became one heartbeat. The consummation of this life of total transparency to God and God’s promises is to share in the Glory of Christ’s resurrection. God doesn’t use people and then drop them – rather, he enfolds them in communion, and shares his glory with them. That is the covenant; that is Christ’s own promise. St Francis de Sales, in a typically over-romantic moment, wrote that Mary died “in love, from love and through love” – but it is that immersion of love which marks the life of Christian discipleship, which begins for all of us with a call, an invitation into Christ’s mission, a summons to faithfulness, and which through Christ’s grace will come to its fulfilment in the glory of heaven.
Some have pointed out that there is relatively little in scripture about Mary, as if this is somehow negative evidence weighing against us celebrating her. But perhaps that is to miss the point. Scripture and tradition need to be held together, and are inseparable from one another. The Church – prefigured by Mary’s faithfulness – is the guardian and interpreter of the whole living tradition, which as John’s Gospel testifies could not be contained by all the written writings of the whole world. The Bible is one part of the Church’s memory, authoritative and binding, but only fully alive with the Incarnate Word when interpreted by the Church and celebrated in the context of worship. In this we see that Mary “magnifies the Lord”, not only because she bears Christ, but because she belongs to both the worlds of the Old and New Testaments – representing the faithfulness of the chosen people, the Jews, and the hope of those who will inherit the fullness of that promise, the Church. Mary, as the archetypal disciple can only be understood within the life of the Spirit-filled community as we appreciate again and again the drastic, scandalous and life-changing truth, that God has made himself known in the vulnerability of the human flesh of a peasant girl from Nazareth.
So, today, as we honour Mary and ponder her role in our salvation, we celebrate God’s action in her life, and Christ’s new creation fully at work in her. Mary’s vocation of absolute faithfulness and transparency to the Divine Will, the full alignment of her heart-beat with the will of God, the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky calls “a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition.” As always, Mary points us relentlessly to her Son. For it is in the light of Christ’s resurrection that we share with Mary that new life of discipleship we call the Church, in which we not only learn God’s faithfulness to us, but also respond with our own commitment, our own “yes” to God and God’s promises which will magnify the Lord, and prosper his Kingdom where the hungry are filled, and the self-satisfied sent empty away. May we become transparent to his Holy Spirit, and as we lift up our hearts to the Lord in this Eucharist, might they be filled with grace that we might bear Christ’s hope to the world. Amen.