Last Sunday’s sermon – The Assumption

Last Sunday was the Sunday following the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was on Monday 15th. We kept the Feast on the Sunday at St John’s and Mother Anne-Marie was preaching. Here is what she said.

Carlo Carretto, a monk and member of the order of the Little Brothers of Jesus, pinpoints his change in attitude to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to an incident which happened when he was living amongst the Tuareg in North Africa. Carlo often stayed with the same group of Tuareg nomads and on one of his visits he was told of the betrothal of a young girl in the camp to a young boy, but the chief told Carlo that she had not yet gone to live with the boy because he was too young. And Carlo said he immediately thought of the bit in Matthew’s gospel where it said the Virgin Mary was betrothed to Joseph but they had not yet come together. Two years later, Carlo tells of how he visited the same camp again and searching for a topic of conversation he asked the chief if the marriage had now taken place, but everyone looked embarrassed and there was an awkward silence, so he didn’t pursue the subject. However the next day he raised it again with one of the chief’s servants and the servant made a sign that Carlo knew well. He passed his hand under his chin to convey that someone had had their throat cut. He explained that before the wedding the girl was found to be pregnant and honour had to be served. Carlo said a shiver went down his spine as he thought of the young girl, murdered because she had been unfaithful to her betrothed.

Later that night Carlo read the account of Jesus’s conception by the light of a candle under the dark Saraha sky.
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” And Carlo also remembered what John’s gospel tells us about the law and adulterous women “Moses commanded us to stone such”. And Carlo goes on to say “I remember vividly how it was on that evening. I felt that Mary was very close, squatting on the sand, small, weak, defenceless, with her large belly, unable to lean forward, silent. I put out the candle, but I saw shining eyes all around me, the inhabitants of Nazareth spying on the girl-mother and I felt for the very first time that I was getting somewhere near to the mystery of Mary.”

The Mystery of Mary. Today we are keeping the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Assumption – it was actually last Monday – 15th August. This is the major feast of Mary in the church and in many countries Monday was a public holiday – Austria, France, Greece and numerous others. In Costa Rica I discovered it is also very appropriately their mothers’ day.

The Mystery of Mary. Our Gospel today, the hymn we know as the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, in which she says “all generations will call me blessed”. A girl-mother from an obscure village in Galilee, will not be stoned as the law demanded but remembered and called blessed by generations and generations to come.

The Mystery of Mary. Thinking about what the law did demand, may bring us to the heart of Marys’ song. In Luke’s gospel she visits her cousin Elizabeth. Was this a way of getting her away from the prying eyes of the villagers? You don’t have to go far back in time in Britain to find that need to get away. Friends of mine in the 1960’s who got pregnant were sent to live with a relative in another town or sent to a mother and baby home. Once the baby was quietly adopted they were expected to return home as if nothing had happened. Mary’s song – was this in part her joyful response to escaping the full force of the law, and being accepted by family and her betrothed? “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”

The Mystery of Mary. The Feast of the Assumption is part of the mystery. We are remembering at this feast the end of Mary’s life, but we don’t know what day she died or even where she died. There are claims for both Ephesus and Jerusalem – but it might have been neither. The Feast of the Assumption also remembers Mary’s joyful reception into heaven and since the fourth century there has been a tradition that she was assumed into heaven body and soul. Hence “The Assumption”. It is probably best not to unpack this too much. Mystery is a word we don’t use enough in terms of faith – the Orthodox Church is much more comfortable with mystery. For instance they never try to explain the Trinity as the church in the west is always at pains to do – they simply say it is mystery – an experienced mystery. And so it is with the Assumption. A mystery. Do you think Mary went to heaven? Well the answer is unlikely to be “no”. Do you think Mary was joyfully received into heaven by Jesus, by the angels and saints – well yes, how could she not be? And so we remember this joyful reception into heaven. There are some who may claim that Mary did not actually die but was assumed body and soul into heaven before her death, but it doesn’t really matter. The heart of the feast is that Mary, as the Roman Catholic church puts it, “having completed the course of her earthly life” was assumed into heaven. It allows both views. As does the Anglican view, affirmed as recently as 2005 that “God has taken the blessed virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory”. To say that God would not receive Mary into his glory is pretty unthinkable, so today we rejoice with the whole of heaven that Mary is with God in glory.

Christianity has been a rather male orientated faith – Jesus was male, most of the first disciples were male reflecting the culture of the day. Interestingly the statement of 1950 from the Roman Catholic Church about the Assumption says this “it is reasonable and fitting that not only the soul and body of a man, but also the soul and body of a woman should have obtained heavenly glory.” And perhaps here is another insight into the mystery of Mary. She has, in a sense, brought the feminine into the church. Unfortunately that has sometimes been in a less than helpful way. She has become too holy – either queen of heaven or meek and mild, or a mixture of both. And this is what Carlo Caretto meant when he said that it was that night in the Sahara that his attitude to Mary changed. He says his relationship with Mary had been marred by Mary as a queen to end all queens, and by Mary as a creature who could do no wrong, incapable of sin or doubt. That night in the Sahara he says she was no longer a remote figure to whom he owed worship, but she became the sister of his heart, the companion of his pilgrimage and his instructor in the faith.

The Mystery of Mary. We get little glimpses of her in the Biblical accounts, but she has grown in significance because so many Christians through the ages have discovered, as Carlo Caretto did, that she is their sister, companion and instructor in the faith.

From her great hymn of praise which we heard this morning, to her instructions at the Wedding of Cana “Do whatever he tells you”, to her patient waiting at the cross; she has become the epitome of a faithful disciple. This may have put her on the pedestal as Queen of Heaven, but she remains the girl-mother of Nazareth, who accepted with faith what God wanted of her, whatever the risks, and it is this very ordinariness of Mary that makes her such a powerful teacher of the faith. The mystery of Mary is that an ordinary girl-mother is now glorified in heaven. She is our sister; she can be our companion on our journey and our teacher in faith. She treads the way ahead of us and assures us that with God the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary and glory awaits us all.

Let us pray in the words of the traditional collect for today:
Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness
of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother
of your only Son:
grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory
of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord