Friday, August 15, 2008

You have taken her to yourself

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Melisa and I just got home from a glorious Mass at St Mark's for the feast of St Mary. I'm a bit worn out now after a long day, so I'll share these thoughts from last year. . . .

One other thing, we didn't get around to it at the ordination because the distribution of Holy Communion did not take as long as planned, but here is one of my favorite hymns, "Hail Holy Queen, enthroned above."

Today is the feast of St Mary the Virgin. In the Anglican Church of Canada, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is called the "Falling Asleep [or Dormition] of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In the Latin West it is called the "Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary."

There is no substantive difference in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine, just a difference in emphasis. The Orthodox emphasize that she died and was resurrected, but that her resurrected body naturally did not continue forever on earth, but that she was taken up to be with her Son. The Catholics emphasize that she was brought to be with Jesus (body and soul) at the end of her life, not defining dogmatically whether or not she underwent physical death--free to say that she was either resurrected or "translated" (see 2 Cor 5:1-8).

The Anglican tradition, as a part of her Catholic heritage, has received the universal tradition about Mary being taken into heaven at the end of her life to be with her son. Yet, in typically Anglican fashion, has not gone into detail about the hows and whys and even ifs of the matter. It is left to the area we call "pious opinions" --venerable traditions which should be respected, but not necessarily demanded as an article of faith. It is what the Lutherans call adiaphora--things "indifferent" or non-essential.

Among Anglicans, some have automatically accepted the tradition of Mary's Assumption simply because it's "the Catholic thing to do." Others have instinctively rejected it for exactly the same reason. I am inclined to believe in the Assumption of Mary. Clearly, it is not something that is unquestionable the way the resurrection of Jesus is. Nevertheless, it is something which I find entirely (in that most Thomistic of terms) "fitting."

Stories about the end of her life began to circulate in the early Church, when the cult of shrines was gaining popularity. Where was Mary buried? Unlike Peter and Paul in Rome, she had no tomb to visit. The earliest references to the Assumption of Mary appear in the 4th (or possibly late 3rd) century in Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary's Repose). Epiphanus of Salamis gives us the earliest extended witness in the fourth century.

In the centuries that follow, several writings appear recording the traditions about her death and assumption. St John of Damascus (writing in the eighth century) relates a tradition where, during the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the emperor Marcian and his wife wished to find the body of Mary. He tells how all the apostles had seen her death, but her tomb was empty upon inspection. Although he did not make it an article of faith, Martin Luther said of the doctrine of the Assumption: "There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know."

Some object that it is not described in the Bible. And they are correct, it is never explicitly described in holy Scripture. But does that mean it did not happen? The Bible also never records the death of St Peter or St Paul, but Christian tradition does, and I am inclined to believe that it is correct about it--not just the fact that they died, but also the where and how and why.

However, it is very possible that the Scriptures allude to her place in heaven. There is biblical precedent for the event in the assumptions of Enoch (Gen 5:34) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). Also, it is possible that she is pictured in the heavenly vision of St John. Revelation 11:19--12:5 reads as follows:

"Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne."

There is always a certain plasticity to the symbolic images (not to mention time-lines) in Revelation. The woman and the child end up signifying the people of God. But at first, they clearly represent Mary and Jesus. The child is the Messiah (and of course, Mary is the mother of the Messiah). Also, we should be aware of the Ark of the Covenant as a symbol for Mary; as the bearer of Jesus (the bread from heaven, the new Torah, the blossomed priestly staff), Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.

So John tells us in Revelation that he saw Mary in heaven, crowned in glory. As the one entrusted with her care, it was surely a moment of awe and comfort that she was safely at home. Some would object that she is not identified by name here; it is only an unnamed mother. That is correct, but it is also typical of St John, for in his gospel Mary is never mentioned by name. Out of deep respect, she is always referred to as "mother" or "woman."

Looking at the Old Testament the way the early Church fathers did, we also see typical allusions which might apply to Mary's Assumption. Psalm 132:8 and 2 Chronicles 6:41 are fitting heralds of the Ascension and Assumption: "Now arise, O LORD God, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your strength." The description of the old ark's placement in the Holy of Holies of the temple (which represents heaven) also applied to the Assumption: "The priests then brought the ark of the LORD's covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim" (1 Kings 8:6).

The description of David preparing a place for the ark mirrors the words of Jesus (the Son of David) words about preparing a place for Mary and all the saints. Compare, "After David had constructed buildings for himself in the City of David, he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it" (1 Chronicles 15:1) with "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." (John 14:1-3). It is no wonder that neither the old ark nor the new ark is known for certain to rest this day at a certain spot on earth--both have been secretly removed and hidden with God until a certain day when they will be revealed (see 2 Maccabees 2:4-10).

"In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land," declares the LORD, "men will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the LORD.' It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made" (Jeremiah 3:16). "Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now" (Hebrews 9:5).

As has been often said, Mary was the first disciple, and we see all God's promises for Christian disciples first fulfilled in her. What happens to Mary is a sign of God's gift to every believer--a new resurrected body, being taken to be with Jesus, and being rewarded (or "crowned") with eternal life. We see this in St Paul's comments on the subject.

"And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Cor 15:49-53).

"According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words" (1 Thess 4:15-18).

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Tim 4:7-8).

The Collect (BCP, p 192)
O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Hymn 278 (The Hymnal 1982)
4. Sing the chiefest joy of Mary when on earth her work was done
and the Lord of all creation brought her to his heavenly home;
where, raised high with saints and angels, in Jerusalem above,
she beholds her Son and Savior reigning as the Lord of love.


Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Being Orthodox, i accept Orthodox teaching on this matter. The main reason is that I think if the Blessed Virgin Mary (Theotokos) did not bodily die, She might have been elevated to "Goddess" status. In my mind it better serves the faithful that although chosen by GOD and living in the Fullness of Grace, she was still human like the rest of us.
Concerning Enoch and Elijah (and even the tradition that Moses did not see death) is merely pious belief. In the case of Moses and Elijah it may be just a different discription of the state of 'death' for them.
The main thing in both positions is that the Holy Mother of Our Lord Jesus is praying for us!

Anonymous said...

"As has been often said, Mary was the first disciple, and we see all God's promises for Christian disciples first fulfilled in her."

A lot of us agree with this statement but if she was called by our Lord to serve as a priest in this diocese our bishop would say no.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

If Our Lady had been called by our Lord to serve as a priest, then no one would have ever said no. Our Lord's will is the only relevant issue in the matter.