Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Although we habitually speak of heaven as “up” and of hell as “down,”
I suspect that most of us know, as most Christians have always known,
that neither place can be reached by traversing a physical distance.
Indeed, a number of years ago
Pope John Paul II reiterated the traditional Christian view,
saying, “the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves
is neither an abstraction
nor a physical place in the clouds,
but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity”
(General Audience, Wednesday 21 July 1999).
In other words, “heaven” is not so much a place
as it is a state of being.

It is good to remind ourselves of this
when we celebrate a feast such as the one we celebrate today.
Today, the feast of the Assumption, we celebrate our belief
that Mary, upon her death,
was taken body and soul into heavenly glory.
Already in the 451 AD, when the Emperor Marcian
asked the bishop of Jerusalem
to bring Mary’s bones to Constantinople
so that they might be placed in the cathedral there,
the bishop responded to his request by saying that,
“Mary had died in the presence of the apostles;
but her tomb, when opened later . . .
was found empty
and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven."
Universal acceptance of this belief
developed over the centuries in the Church
until it was solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950
as part of the official body of teachings of the Catholic Church.

Now one might imagine this event
as one often sees it depicted in art:
with Mary slowly rising up into the clouds,
perhaps with angels beneath her feet,
giving her an extra boost.
But if heaven is not a physical place,
but rather a state of being in perfect relationship with God –
a state that involves a radical transformation
of our entire self, body and soul –
then these artistic imaginings
must be understood as precisely that:
acts of the human imagination,
in which we attempt to depict for ourselves
realities that go beyond what our minds can fully grasp.
So when we speak of Mary being “assumed” or taken up into heaven,
we aren’t really talking about a direction to which we can point
or a distance that we can traverse.
Mary is not, literally speaking, “up there”
because heaven is not, literally speaking, “up there.”

But it is not too hard to imagine
why people have spoken that way over the years.
There is something about the sky –
or, as we sometimes call them, the heavens –
that speak to us of that exalted state of being
that we might call “heavenly glory,”
that state of being into which Mary has entered.

This summer, while on vacation in Northwestern Colorado,
in one of those increasingly rare places
where there is no electrical lighting for miles around,
I was amazed by the night sky.
In contrast to Baltimore, where at night our stingy skies
might favor us with at best a glimpse of the Big Dipper,
there the stars were strewn across of sky with reckless prodigality.
Their number and their variety were almost more
than the mind and senses could take in;
the immensity of the space of the sky
was like a pool into which one could fall forever.
I was put in mind of the words
of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
“Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"
It was as if in the sky above us
God had provided the whole world
with a symbol of heavenly glory.
The night sky spoke of a mystery
in which there is always more to discover,
a pearl of great price
for which it just might make sense to risk everything,
a standing invitation
to join the fire-folk dwelling there in glory.
It made it possible to imagine
that that which spread itself out above me
was not merely a sky,
but was indeed the heavens.

What better place to imagine Mary,
“a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars”?
Surely of all Christ’s followers, Mary is among the fire-folk,
those in whom God’s grace has kindled the fire of divine love.
St. Augustine wrote:
“My weight is my love.
Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.
By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards;
we grow red hot and ascend” (Confessions, 8.9.10).
Mary loved God,
and that love has carried her into heavenly glory.

It is perhaps fitting that,
on this feast of Mary’s being taken up
into the mystery that we call heaven,
our Gospel lets Mary herself speak
of the love that burns within her,
the divine gift by which she is carried upward.
She sings in her Magnificant, her song of praise to God,
of the love that casts down the mighty from their throne
and has lifted up the lowly.
Mary is lifted up in her lowliness
because she said “yes” to God’s love,
said "yes" to the invitation
to become the mother of Jesus, God with us.

But this feast is not just about Mary,
for Mary is not only the Mother of God,
but also the first disciple,
the first to say “yes” to Jesus Christ.
And all of us who say “yes” to Jesus stand with Mary:
we have hope that Mary’s destiny in heavenly glory
will also be our destiny;
we have hope that the unimaginable joy of eternal life with God
will be ours as well;
we have hope that we too will be among the fire-folk
who burn with divine love.

So heaven may not be “up”
and hell may not be “down,”
but the next time you happen to be away from the city’s lights
and the night is particularly clear,
and you find yourself beneath that great symbol of heaven,
“Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"
Imagine Mary among the stars in glory,
and imagine yourself there too.