Sermon for High Mass for the Assumption of the BVM Friday 15 August 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
“What is the sacred language of Christianity?” If Arabic is the language of Islam and Hebrew of the Jews, is it Latin or Greek for the Christians? No, it is flesh. The language of Christianity is body language. If the Qur’an is the medium of Islam and the Torah for the Jews, it is not the New Testament that carries Jesus for Christians. It is Mary. …dogmas are not narrow cells for the incarceration of the mind, but public spaces in which the spirit plays truth.
Dan Madigan SJ, addressing the John Main Seminar (World Community for Christian Meditation) in Chicago – quote by Laurence Freeman in the Tablet 9/8
The University of Oxford which was pivotal in recovering the buried catholic heritage of our church maintained an interesting devotion to Mary throughout the darker protestant centuries. Things were not so cut and dried between Rome and the rest of Christendom in those days. Well before the Oxford movement, in the 17th century, at Magdalen College a quiet devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was being fostered in parallel to what was happening in France (remarkably, the treatise ‘The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth’ by Thomas Goodwin, a congregationalist sometime chaplain of Oliver Cromwell who was intruded as President of Magdalen College Oxford, was influential in the thought of St Claude Colombiere, the confessor of St Margaret Mary Alacoque the promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart; a subsequent link being our crypto-Catholic King James II). That devotion to the incarnate love of Christ is apposite to keeping Mary’s part in our salvation in view.
In that same 17th century in Oxford, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin was adorned with a crowned Madonna and child which would not disgrace a baroque church in Italy. Moreover, uniquely (and loftily ignoring the BCP), the University Almanack, still beautifully illustrated and printed by the Press each year, retained the feast of the Assumption, named as such, on 15th August. At that time, of course, it was not so intimately bound up in the ‘narrow cells’ of which Madigan speaks, the dogmatic definitions and assertions of papal infallibility which, arguably, have done this ancient tradition of the church little service. Laying that detritus aside, this feast shines afresh as the primary and definitive feast of Mary. Oxford kept the faith and we have caught up with her.
This feast, of course, commemorates Mary’s heavenly birthday, consistently reflecting Christian practice in honouring saints, of whom she is the foremost. As we might have sung tonight:
O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Today we give thanks for Mary’s share in the resurrection, the experience of life with God which is our Christian inheritance and our hope; she goes before us as an advertisement of obedient humanity sharing fully in the glory attained by Jesus, her divine son, at the right hand of the Father. All Mary’s greatness comes from her relationship with Jesus: we celebrate and give thanks for her daily in our prayers, and especially on this solemn feast, because it draws us closer to him.
Jesus, Hebrews reminds us, is a self-portrait of God. Mary is the material without which that portrait could not have been. But the genius of the miracle is that she is not dumb matter but a living, sentient link with all of us. And, of course, a necessary one: no Mary, no incarnation; no incarnation, no redemption for us, because, as Gregory Nazianzen wrote (using the word in a different sense), ‘what is not assumed is not healed’. The greatest gift of God, that ‘we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’ is a gift from Mary as well as from God, and we cannot be Christians without acknowledging our debt to her.
Of course that debt is of a different order than what we owe to our heavenly Father. Mary’s body was part of the creative work of the incarnation; but her stewardship of her son was the stuff of patient, faithful ordinary life. She cared for him during all the years he remained in the shadows, unknown and unrecognized. When at last he emerged from those shadows and came out into public view, he did not exactly meet with universal acclaim. The religious establishment refused to believe in him. But Mary did and stood by him to the end. She sets the tone for the new anti-establishment which is the Church at its truest.
We know that God raised her son from the dead, vindicating him. And in that glory Mary rightly shares, as a living portrait of our hope. That is why we keep this feast today, in honour of the humble and faithful woman of Nazareth, glorified with her son, pointing the way for us, the way of forthright perseverance and determination in faith and obedience to God, which begins with humility and love.
Like John the Baptist, Mary always points away from herself and towards Jesus. And the glory of Mary in heaven is not, selfishly, hers either: it lies in the assurance that where she is we all may hope to be. For each of us is made in the image of God.
As she did at the wedding at Cana, Mary continues to intercede with her son for our needs. She can help us with our struggle to believe in our human and divine dignity, and live in a way that befits that dignity, gifted to us by God. With her help, and by the grace of God, we can hope to share in her glory and the glory of her Son in heaven. She is the first Christian and a reminder of where our Christian journey can take us – through doubt and sorrow, but always looking upwards to that glory which lies ahead.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.