SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, AUGUST 16, 2015, THE SOLEMNITY OF THE ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Let us pray: Thank you, Heavenly Father, for this great feast we keep today. Thank you for our Lady, for Mary, mother of your son and mother of the church. Illumine our minds as we reflect upon her, enkindle our hearts to imitate her. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
First: What are we doing? Why in the world are self-respecting Episcopalians, even high-church Anglo-catholics like ourselves, throwing around Romish, popish words like “Assumption”?
Well, for the benefit of those who wanted to hit Wikipedia on your smart phone when you saw the bulletin this morning: The Assumption is the belief that, after she completed her earthly life, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was “assumed” or taken up body and soul into heaven. This is a very old idea - after all, Enoch and Elijah were taken up from the earth, so the OT tells us. But the idea of Mary’s assumption - that wasn’t around in the earliest centuries of the church. The idea begins to bubble up in manuscripts around the 4th century, and there are 5th century feasts celebrating Mary’s death. But it wasn’t until the 20th century, in 1950, that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption as dogma for RCs:
We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
So somehow, in some way, that’s why we use the word Assumption. (Notice my boss and our deacon are both conspicuously absent today - things get weird when the cats are away.)
Question two: Why do we do it?
First, some argue it just stands to reason: Jesus is in heaven; and it’s logical he’d want his mother with him, right?
But a second reason is better: The Assumption says something profound about the destiny of every human being. We were made for glory, created and redeemed to be with God, and Mary is sort of the “first fruits,” proof of the promise of what awaits all of us who are found in Christ.
John Macquarrie was a Scot, a theologian and priest, who has been described as “Anglicanism’s most distinguished systematic theologian in the second half of the 20th century.” In Mary for All Christians, he wrote:
The Assumption is a transformation of the human condition from its familiar earthly state to a new mode of being in which it enjoys an immediate relation to God . . . . The closeness of Jesus and Mary . . . could not be broken by the end of their companionship on earth. It is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise, made not just to Mary but to all his followers, that “where I am, there you will be also” (John 14:3).
Macquarrie’s point is this belief says something not just about Mary; it is, to quote a Catholic priest I once heard preach on the Assumption, “a glimpse of where we’re all going.”
But may I suggest a final reason for the feast? We care about Mary’s body because Christianity is the quintessential “bodily” religion. So if you tweet about this sermon, use the hashtag #BodiesMatter. And you don’t have to be RC to think so. C. S. Lewis, an Anglican, wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship . . . . (Look at the person on your left and on your right - remember the dullest and most interesting person you can talk to . . . .) There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit . . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
What leads to the last question: What do we do next?
Well, first, if your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses, treat them that way! This idea that bodies matter ought to make all the difference in the world in how we treat people. Two examples:
I ask you: How can we possibly do that, when we believe what we believe? The Christian view of the human body affects everything - violent video games, human trafficking, how we treat the poor and the elderly, even how we talk to one another. Bodies matter. People aren’t objects for us to treat disrespectfully - if you believe the Assumption, act accordingly.
And one last point: In venerating our Lady, in celebrating her conception, the Annunciation, or the Assumption, we are asking fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of mankind. Why are we here? The Church sees Mary as the best answer to why we’re here, as the epitome of the right human response to the initiating grace of God. Remember the Annunciation - the angel Gabriel comes to a terrified teenage girl, unsure about her future, and says “You’re going to have God’s son.” As an old mentor of mine would say,
God ground to a halt before a teenage girl in Palestine, and the whole creation held its breath to see what she would say.
Her response, from Luke 1, was “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.” Here I am - do with me what you will. Her surrender, her abandonment, her radical trust in the mysterious will of God, was how she co-operated with God in his plan to renew the world.
How many of us are frightened? How many are unsure about the future? Mary is exhibit A for what to say to the grace of God, whether we understand it or not. When God’s grace comes to you and to me, and all creation holds its breath for us, what will our answer be?
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) “Assumption of the BVM,” in The Oxford Dict. of the Christian Church, 3d ed., F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone eds. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005): 118-19.
2) In Papal Bull Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1 Nov. 1950.
3) Wikipedia contributors. “John Macquarrie.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Jun. 2015. Web. 14 Aug. 2015.
4) John Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990): 85-86.
5) Fr. John Riccardo, “Feast of the Assumption,” podcast of a homily preached on 15 Aug. 2012.
6) C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: Harper, 2001): 45-46.
7) Chris Morris, “Is the Porn Industry Imperiled?” 18 Jan. 2012, http://www.cnbc.com/id/45989346 (last visited 14 August 2015).
8) “Porn Profits: America’s Corporate Secret,” 28 Jan. 2003, http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story? id=132001 (last visited 14 August 2015).
9) Tim Kreider, “Isn’t it Outrageous?” 14 July 2009, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/isnt-it-outrageous/?_ r=1 (last visited 14 August 2015).
10) Scott Sauls, “Internet Outrage, Public Shaming, and Modern-Day Pharisees,“ Relevant Magazine, 11 June 2015, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/internet-outrage-public-shaming-and-modern-day-pharisees (last visited 14 August 2015).
11) Schmemann calls her “the icon of the entire creation as response to God”; William Porcher Dubose says Mary “represents the highest reach, the focusing upward, as it were, of the world’s susceptibility to God.”