Last Sunday we kept the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It should, of course, really be on the 15th and in recent years we have kept it on the sunday of the octave. This year we were just a little bit naughty and pre-empted the feast. Here’s my sermon
Today we come together to honour the mother of Jesus. Every year on or around the 15th August Christians around the world come together to give thanks for the role played by Mary in bringing about our salvation. For without Mary’s “yes” to God there would have been no incarnation.
The feast of the Assumption is a very old one. We know it was celebrated, first in the Eastern Church where it is known as the Dormition or falling asleep, by the turn of the 5th century, and then a little later in the Western Church. It is celebrated today around the world by Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans. But what exactly is the Assumption – where does this belief come from?
At the end of the 4th gospel, as he hung on the cross, Jesus put his mother into the care the disciple whom he loved – thought to be Saint John. Traditionally it was believed that some four to six years after the death of Christ, Saint John took Mary to Ephesus where they dwelt in a small house over which now stands the Council Church, or the Church of the Virgin Mary. The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in the year 431, recorded this. Later Saint John brought Mary to a house on the slopes of Bülbül Mountain, around 9 km from Ephesus, the position of which was later forgotten, until research was begun in 1891 to find traces of it. A small house was subsequently found. On the site of the house there is also a church which is thought to have been incorporated into the original building in the 6-7th centuries. And it was officially accepted by the Orthodox Church to be the house of the Virgin in 1892 with the celebration of high mass there by Timoni, Archbishop of Ýzmir. This belief has recently been confirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1967 and Pope John Paul II in 1979 with the celebration of high mass at Ephesus. The house is now known as “panaya kapula” or “the doorway to the virgin”. It was in this house that Mary was believed to have lived out her life with Saint John and where she is believed to have died.
Where does the Assumption come in? Well, the story goes that when she died she was buried in Ephesus. Saint Thomas asked to see inside the tomb – why, we don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t believe she had died – Saint Thomas, the doubter still. At any rate, the tomb was opened and Mary’s body was no longer there. This was taken by the apostles, so the story goes, to be a sign that her body had been taken straight to heaven.
Many, of course, will take such stories with a pinch of salt – though it has to be remembered that belief in the assumption of Mary is very old and is almost universal – was universal until the Reformation. And to those who claim that such a thing could not happen because God wouldn’t do that sort of thing – well, the Bible tells us how both Enoch and Elijah were bodily assumed into heaven while they were still alive.
Anglicans, of course, are left to believe what they like, though the ARCIC report “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ”, published by the joint Anglican-Roman Catholic commission in 2004, states that belief in the assumption “is consonant with Scripture and the ancient common traditions” of the Church. But acceptance that Mary has a unique place as a human being in the history of the church is universal – and she is uniquely honoured among all Christians as the mother of Our Lord. And the reason for the unique place that she holds in our hearts can be seen in our gospel reading today.
For in our gospel reading we have one of the most important songs in the whole of Scripture. Its importance is such that it is repeated every day at the office of evening prayer. This great canticle of praise was uttered by Mary at her meeting with Elizabeth in response to her cousin’s exclamation: Blessed art thou among women. Mary’s response to her cousin’s greeting is a wonderful song of praise and glory to God. The first part concerns herself, and Mary shows full appreciation of what God has done in her life. She cries out with delight —all generations will call me blessed. How true that prophecy has been. The whole Church, even those who look with suspicion upon traditional devotion to Mary, refer to her as the Blessed Virgin.
The rest of the canticle we call The Magnificat concerns itself with describing the mighty deeds the Lord has performed and the promises he made and kept. And this is what we are celebrating today—a kept promise. And it is the most important promise of all that is being kept, the promise of salvation. God sent his only son into our world precisely to complete this task—to bring us salvation to save us from sin and death and to enable us to enter and live forever in his Kingdom of Glory. And this feast we celebrate today, the feast of the Assumption, commemorates the fact that Mary because of her special status and role in God’s plan of salvation merited the first fruits of salvation. Jesus came into the world through the co-operation of Mary; he preached repentance, proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom and gave his life for our sake. In this way he overcame sin and brought us salvation.
But there remains a puzzle: if our salvation has been won and sin has been overthrown how come there is still evil in the world? This is part of the great mystery that is salvation. There are three dimensions: salvation was, is and is to come. It incorporates every dimension—past, present and future. Jesus achieved our salvation in the historical past, about 2000 years or so ago. Yet his salvation is present in our world right now. You and I experience the power of his salvation in our experience of the seven sacraments as well as in a host of other ways. And his salvation is to come in all its fullness at the end of time.
As Saint John tells us in the Book of Revelation: Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God have come. This now is an eternal now. It has past, present and future dimensions. This is not our now this is God’s now. He does not live within time or space for these are merely his creations. If we reject sin and take up the choice God offers us we are all able to be saved. And this will happen to us over the course of time. It is a process which began at our Baptism and continues throughout our lives, especially as we are nourished by the sacraments, and it will come to a decisive point at the moment of our death and particular judgement. And after a period of purification we will experience the power of the resurrection in all its fullness.
This is what we are celebrating today in this feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because Mary co-operated in the plan of God for the salvation of the world, because in a unique way she was “full of grace” she has experienced the first fruits of the resurrection. So Mary is our model, a model in the sense that we can and surely ought to imitate her virtues. But she also a model in the sense that because she has already experienced the fullness of salvation we are able to look to her to see the way our own salvation will in due time with God’s grace and our co-operation eventually work itself out.
Where Mary has gone we too hope to follow.