Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Lily among the Thorns: The Assumption of the Mother of God

Last Saturday, August 15, was the Christian feast celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the day when, by tradition, the Mother of God is believed to have been raised up, body and soul, to heaven (or, in more fancy language, “corporeally assumed” into heaven). Opinions are divided on whether she died first, or whether she was lifted up into heaven without ever experiencing physical death, but the latter seems more compelling to me. The Assumption is celebrated by Catholics and some high-church Anglicans, and a similar feast is apparently celebrated by the Orthodox.

Some Christians find the teaching about the Assumption to be controversial because it “isn’t mentioned in scripture” or because it “overemphasizes Mary at the expense of Jesus”, and some secularists find it silly because they don’t believe dead people can be raised from the dead. Actually, there are strong reasons to believe that the Assumption of Mary really happened. Before I take a look at one of the early traditional accounts of the Assumption, I’d like to quickly explain why this teaching seems convincing to me.

The Christian Bible certainly contains some verses that can provide support for the Assumption of Mary. In the Wisdom of Solomon, it is said that “to be allied with Wisdom is immortality” (Wisdom 8:17). The Latin here for “allied” is actually “cognatio”, which connotes a blood relationship, and “Wisdom” has been traditionally interpreted as a prophetic figure of Christ, so taken together this suggests that the closest blood relative of Christ, i.e. Mary, would be “immortal”. The figure of Esther in the book of the same name has also been traditionally taken as a prophetic figure of Mary, and this line would seem to suggest that Mary would be spared from natural death: “Thou shalt not die: for this law is not made for thee, but for all others” (Esther 15:13). Christ himself promised to the Apostles (and presumably to Mary since she would have been present, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3). Since we have traditional accounts of the deaths by martyrdom of the various Apostles, it seems unlikely that any of the Apostles were intended: on the contrary, the fulfillment of this promise would seem to be St. Mary. And make no mistake, inasmuch as this saying of Christ was intended to strengthen the Apostles’ faith as much as anything else, it would have had to be fulfilled in the lifetime of the Apostles in order for it to serve its intended purpose: and fulfilled it was.

Finally and most clearly, St. John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, who represents St. Mary, seems to describe in figurative language how God preserved her from death and from the powers of evil: “And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished…” (Revelation 12:13-14). The “eagle’s wings” imply that St. Mary was lifted up into heaven just as the Assumption describes. It’s important to remember here that St. John was the closest companion of the Blessed Virgin, as Christ had made him, as He hung on the Cross, her adopted son: “Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (John 19:26), and that he wrote Revelation towards the end of his life, exiled on Patmos. Therefore the Assumption had already happened, and he would have known about it, and Revelation 12 was a historical description of what had taken place as well as a mystical vision of the everlasting conflict of good and evil.

We also have strong arguments from church tradition to persuade us. In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus devotes several long and beautiful homilies to the meaning of the Assumption. The Feast of the Assumption was celebrated in France, Arabia, Egypt and Palestine during the fifth and sixth centuries, and was alluded to by St. Juvenal at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. St. Gregory of Tours mentioned it in the sixth century, and it was widely celebrated in the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches from the 8th century onward.

Perhaps the strongest argument is the old ‘Habeas Corpus’ line of the lawyers. The early Christian church had a passion for relics and for noting the location of the deaths of early Christian apostles and martyrs. There are objects that were claimed, from very early on, to be the physical relics of each one of the Apostles, and there are traditions about the tombs of each one of them. Except that there have never been any purported ‘relics’ of Mary. Why not? Indeed, a contemporary narrative of the Council of Chalcedon claims that the Byzantine Emperor Flavian Marcian, who was attending the Council, requested the relics of Mary from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and that he was denied on the grounds that such relics did not exist. It would have been easy to dig up the tomb and obtain the relics: the only good reason not to was that the Emperor found the arguments convincing, and so should we.

As for the argument that ‘venerating Mary detracts from the glory of God’, I completely disagree. The nature of the Trinitarian God is that He is a God who is characterized by community and sociality: in fact, the very existence of the Trinity tells us that God has always existed as a kind of divine community of three persons. God loves those that he has created with a perfect and total love, and when we love others we love God too. Likewise when we honor those who He has made worthy of being honor, we glorify God through giving glory to the order that he has established. God is most concerned, above all things, that all of His creatures receive what is good and right for them. In some cases, when he has chosen those creatures for special honor- whether they be the holy angels, the saints, or Mary- He is concerned that they receive that honor and glory due to them. The more we honor St. Mary the more we honor the God who chose her for that honor.

Why is the Assumption of St. Mary so important? What does it tell us? It tells us several things: about the nature of love, about the promise of redeemed humanity, and about how God overturns patriarchal and exploitive structures and exalts women. We know that love is the nature of God: “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). The doctrine of the Assumption tells us that that love is not merely the disinterested beneficience (agape) but also filial affection (storge). Love in its highest form is not simply general but also particular. This is why loving God, and loving humanity in general, should not mean loving our family, our friends, and our romantic partners any less. St. Augustine, in his “City of God”, argued with those who said that particular love of particular individuals was bad, while disinterested love was good: he noted that Christ asked St. Peter three times after the resurrection, ‘Do you love me?” using once the word for “friendship” and once the word for “solicitude”. This shows that God esteems the love of a friend as much as He does the disinterested love of humanity as a whole. The image of the Bride of Christ in Revelation 21 shows the same about romantic love, and the Assumption of Mary shows that the same is true of “storge”, natural affection. In heaven we will not only have God but we will have our partners, our friends, our family. And on earth, our good lies in loving not only God but more fully loving our fellow men in general and those we are close to through ties of friendship, family, and romance. I know people who say that they don’t want to have children because it would take time away from their goal of better serving humanity. But I believe that’s a false tradeoff and the Assumption of Mary shows us why. Christ loves all of humanity, equally, with “agape”, but He also loved His Mother with natural affection, just as he had a particular friendship for St. John. The one does not detract from the other: He was perfect in charity and also perfect in affection, and so are we called to be.

The Assumption of Mary shows us, too, that God intended to overthrow the patriarchal oppression of women in the past, and raise all women through raising one in particular. He raised one particular woman, the child of Anna and Joachim, to be the Queen of Heaven, the only human being (besides Christ the God-Man) to be free from sin, with a crown of stars and the moon beneath her feet, higher than all the angels (Revelation 12:1). So many ancient cultures had considered women and childbirth to be ritually impure: God chose a particular woman to be the purest and highest of all humans (again, with the exception of her son). In the assumption of Mary we have a promise of what will one day be true of humanity in general: that we will be free from sin, death, and the power of evil.

Let me take a quick look at one of the extra-biblical accounts of the Assumption of Mary, attributed to St. John. It was most likely written sometime in the fifth century but probably has a core of genuine truth to it- whether remembered oral history or mystical vision. To me, at least, it has the ring of something compelling. The writer begins his narrative by poignantly discussing how St. Mary, after the death of Christ, went regularly to the tomb of Christ to pray for His return. She knew of who and what He was, and that He had ascended to heaven for good, but in her humanity and her love for him she longed for her son, and wept that he was gone from him, as any mother would: “As the all-holy glorious mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, as was her wont, was going to the holy tomb of our Lord to burn incense, and bending her holy knees, she was importunate that Christ our God who had been born of her should return to her.” The archangel Gabriel then appears from her and promises that while she cannot receive her wish she will receive something better: instead of Christ returning to be with her, He will call her to ascend to heaven and be with her Son forever. She asks that the rest of the apostles (by now dispersed across the world from Gaul to India) should return so that she can see them. By a miracle, the apostles are brought to Jerusalem from Ephesus, from Armenia, from Egypt, from India, from Rome: “And Mark likewise coming round, was present from Alexandria; he also with the rest, as has been said before, from each country. And Peter being lifted up by a cloud, stood between heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit keeping him steady. And at the same time, the rest of the apostles also, having been snatched up in clouds, were found along with Peter. And thus by the Holy Spirit, as has been said, they all came together.” The apostles, gathered together for this greatest of all reunions, pray and worship together, and they see miracles happening in the world outside: “And I beheld also that many signs came to pass, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, and those possessed by unclean spirits cured…” Mary asks that those who pray in her name be blessed by God, and Christ promises her that He will bless anyone who calls upon His mother: “every favour and every gift has been given to you from my Father in heaven, and from me, and from the Holy Spirit: every soul that calls upon your name shall not be ashamed, but shall find mercy, and comfort, and support, and confidence, both in the world that now is, and in that which is to come, in the presence of my Father in the heavens.” And in the sight of all the Apostles her soul is carried up to heaven, and her body laid in its tomb: and for several days the Apostles hear the voices of invisible angels singing the praises of Christ, and after three days “the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise”.

This narrative isn’t scripture and we aren’t asked to believe it as scripture, but the early church found it convincing and I must conclude it’s based on genuine truth. Whether the apostles were brought together on clouds or whether they experienced a mystical vision of the event isn’t really important: what is important is that for those few days they experienced a mystical reunion with each other and with the holy Mother of God. What an amazing few days that must have been. All of us know what reunions are like. We’ve all experienced coming together with family at Christmas, with school friends at the end of summer, with people we once knew in college or at a job. It’s like overcoming not just space but time: like you are brought back, for a moment, to the simpler times of the past when things seemed so much easier and less complex, and before you went your separate ways. We come back to a reunion with stories of what we have seen and done since then, and look forward to the opportunity to tantalize our friends with those stories. When I first got to Madagascar I imagined of all the stories I would tell people back home: about helping pull trucks out of ditches, about picking up snakes, about exploring the forest at night, about biking to the clinic to seek help for a sick neighbor, about everything. Our nature as social beings is that we love to tell stories, and we prize reunions for that. Imagine the kind of things the apostles had seen and done on that day in the mid-50s AD, and what kind of stories they would have had to tell: of visions, of miracles, or persecutions and adventures. Imagine St. Peter talking of the Roman persecutions, of St. Thomas describing a rhinoceros or a tiger, imagine St. Mark describing a hippopotamus.

In the medieval legends of the Grail, the twelve apostles are described as the forerunner of the Arthurian knights and as the greatest fellowship of friends that the world has ever seen. The mystical reunion of the apostles, whether in spirit or in the flesh, to share the vision of the Assumption was like the greatest and best high school reunion it’s possible to imagine, in which the apostles saw once again the presence of the One who had made them what they were and had lifted them out of their lives and given them a purpose. The story of the Assumption shows us not only the value of the love of family, but the love of friends too.

It shows us, too, how God always has something stored up for us, better than we can possibly imagine. The Greeks imagined a good life was the best thing you could have: a good life, and a quiet, pleasant death. The Old Testament Jews thought of the Messiah as a political savior who would overthrow tyranny. Neither was wrong but they saw only part of the truth: God had something better in store than either- or than any human being, in fact- could have imagined. Mary, likewise, wanted her son to return to her- she shared the common longing of any parent who has lost a child. God gave her not what she wanted, but something so much better: He granted her the special privilege of being corporeally assumed into heaven to be with her Son. Heaven will be something better than we can possibly imagine, and likewise God so often has plans for us that involve something higher and better than we could choose, or even dream of, on our own.

It shows us, finally, how God takes devotion to His followers and helpers as devotion due to Him. Mary knew that people would invoke her name, as she was a human being, and therefore could understand their plight, and she asked that God accept that honor as honor due to him. God, again, is a God of sociality and community, and He wants us to receive honor and glory to the extent that we are due. Love is, as St. Augustine says, unique in that it multiplies when it is divided: it is unlike earthly goods in that way. When we love St. Mary, we love the God who raised her to that place of honor, all the more, and when we honor her we make it possible for her to “inflame us with the desire of thy son”.

“How you have blossomed forth, how sweet you have become! You are the flower of the field, a lily among the thorns!” says St. John of Damascus in a homily, quoting the Song of Solomon in reference to St. Mary. It’s a great sermon and you should read it. Let me close by quoting it further: “But do thou graciously receive my desire, knowing that it exceeds my power. Watch over us, O Queen, the dwelling-place of our Lord. Lead and govern all our ways as thou wilt. Save us from our sins. Lead us into the calm harbour of the divine will. Make us worthy of future happiness through the sweet and face-to-face vision of the Word made flesh through thee. With Him, glory, praise, power, and majesty be to the Father and to the holy and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever.”


Friday, August 21, 2009

Self-Emptying: The mystery of the Incarnation

In my last blog post I talked about these two miracles: the healing of the bleeding woman, and the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and I tried to make the case that miracles can and do happen. In this post I want to go into more detail about something I find interesting about this passage, and what it tells us about the mystery of the Incarnation.

What did Christ mean when he asked, “Who touched me?” Did he know the answer to this question, and was he simply trying to get the woman to confess her need? Or did he really not know? For that matter, what are we to make of the numerous instances in the Gospels in which Christ asked questions? As Christians, we believe that Christ was fully Divine (as well as human) to the same degree that the Father was divine, as the Creed of St. Athanasius says, “Equal to the Father as touching His Godhood, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.” As it is said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). But we generally think of God the Father as all-knowing, however you qualify that. If God knows all things, and if Christ was fully God, then how could He ask a question to which He didn’t know the answer? And there are certainly, it would seem, things that Christ claimed not to know, most notably the day of the resurrection: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

The question only gets more difficult when we consider that at least on one occasion, Christ appeared to make a statement that contravenes what we know of biology: “24Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). We know, today, that seeds are not ‘dead’ in any sense of the word: if they are dead, they can’t germinate, end of story. An omniscient God would know this- so if Christ was God, then why didn’t Christ? Even if we dismiss “Who touched me?” as a rhetorical question, we cannot dismiss the occasions when Christ appeared to concede that there were things He didn’t know, or simply showed us that He didn’t know things that science was to discover centuries later. What are we to make of this? Must we conclude that Christ was not omniscient, and therefore Christ was not truly the Son of God (or, alternatively, that God is not omniscient?)

The medieval Zoroastrian scholar Mardanfarrokh e Ohrmazdad certainly thought so. In a lengthy polemic against the various rival religions of his time and place (Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Manichaeanism) he argued that Christ’s confession of ignorance showed that the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was false. His arguments, incidentally, are rather interesting- so much more so than the tiresome arguments of the modern day antireligious intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens- precisely because he and the Christians shared so much in common. Mardanfarrokh didn’t doubt the reality of virgin births, angelic incarnations, miracles, saviors, heaven and hell, or an everlasting struggle between God and the Devil: in fact, his religion believed in all of these things. He simply doubted that Christ was the fulfillment of them, and he made closely reasoned arguments to that effect (he quotes liberally from Scripture, though given that we are presumably reading an English translation of a Persian polemic against a Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament, his Gospel citation sound extremely garbled to a western reader- almost like you fed the Gospels into Babelfish and then back out again).

Some would (on good grounds) quibble, right away, with the word ‘omniscient’ I used above. They would argue that no one, not even God, can know all future events with perfect accuracy. Rational beings have free will, and are able to choose between alternate courses of action- in other words, between alternate ‘futures’. This means that if free will exists (which it clearly does) then the future is not ‘determined’, and therefore doesn’t really exist in the strict sense, and therefore God cannot know it- omniscience, to these thinkers, would mean knowing all things that are knowable, not knowing the answer to every question that can possibly be posed. God cannot know the last digit of pi (since it doesn’t exist), nor can He know who you will choose to marry, since that depends on your free choice.

Now that’s a compelling argument (to me), but it doesn’t answer the question of Christ’s seeming ignorance. Even if God cannot know (perfectly) all future events, surely He knows all events in the past and future. And the question of who touched Christ, or whether seeds are dead or alive, was a question concerning the present, not the future.I found this question baffling for a long time. Recently, though, I found what seems to be a compelling answer to this paradox. It was put forth by Charles Gore, the Anglican bishop of Oxford, in the 1920s. Bishop Gore had a relatively liberal approach to the Old Testament, but in matters of tradition and morality he was staunchly conservative (he was a high-church Anglo-Catholic, and opposed divorce in all circumstances, and devoted his last two years to strongly condemning contraception, which should please those of you who oppose contraception!) So he cannot be dismissed as a loosey-goosey, wooly-headed hipster postmodernist Christian.

Gore argued essentially that when “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), he emptied himself of those of his divine attributes which were incompatible with taking on a human nature. What the Incarnation meant, in terms of the sacrifice of His divine attributes, is described here: “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Christ humbled himself, and being a perfect being (i.e. God) He humbled himself perfectly. What could it mean for a Divine being to become ‘humble’ while still retaining His Divine knowledge and His divine power? How could a being who could bring worlds into being and blot them out, who could know the fall of every sparrow from every tree (Matthew 10:29), take on the form of a servant except by (temporarily) giving up those attributes?

The essence of Christ’s mission to humanity was one of sacrifice. He became a man in order to make a perfect sacrifice, once and for all, of himself. But a perfect sacrifice would have to touch not only His death, but also His life. While living on this earth, for thirty years, Christ voluntarily gave up His awesome, ineffable, unfathomable abilities and powers, and accepted the role of a humble carpenter.

Christ came to earth, in part, to model what a perfect Man should be. He took on human nature so that human nature could, once and for all, be perfected and redeemed. Thus Christ had to have all possible human virtues. Yet one of the important human virtues is faith: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Now where there is perfect knowledge, there can be no faith: for faith by its essence involves a leap into the unknown, a willingness to believe what is revealed to us or handed down by those we are bound to trust. If we knew all things perfectly, there would be no need for faith. For “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In order for the man Jesus Christ to have faith during his 33 years on earth, He had to (temporarily, at the moment of the incarnation) be stripped of divine omnipotence.

This, of course, gets to a more important point. The essence of human nature is limitation. All of the virtues that we associate with being human, all of the traits and attributes that we admire, stem in some way from the struggle against suffering, adversity and evil (or as it’s often put, against the world, the flesh, and the devil). We develop muscular strength by lifting weights, by running, by exerting ourselves against resistance. And as it is with the body, so it is with the soul. In a world in which there was no scarcity, there would be no meaning to generosity. We admire doctors and nurses for their hard work, often at personal risk, to save the lives of others and to heal the sick: but in a world without sickness, there would be no hospitals and no doctors, and no such virtues for us to admire.. In a world in which there were no wars and wild animals to fear, there would be no point to courage. In a world in which there was no deception, there would be no meaning to honesty. And in a world with no death, love itself could not reach its highest expression, for as it is said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should give up his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

People with dreams of a technologically advanced future sometimes imagine that in the future, machines will do all the work, and human beings will be free to enjoy all their time in leisure. That dream was largely smashed by the looming fossil fuel crisis, but even before that, sensitive people realized that it was not a dream but rather a nightmare. Human beings derive meaning in their lives from work, and work is a great part of how we create our identity. A society in which nearly all farming was done mechanically would be a society in which we had lost our connection to the land. That is why Berdyaev, last century, said that utopias are now technically feasible and the great question is how, at any costs, to prevent utopias from becoming reality. Limitation, suffering and adversity- and the struggle against them- are the root of all the human virtues, of all the talents, abilities, and excellences that we admire. Some of the most admirable people I know personally- I’m thinking of a half-dozen or so in particular- are those who faced terrible adversity, and hard conditions in life, and through it all kept their ability to love intact. It was necessary for Christ to be perfect in virtue: to surpass the most virtuous ordinary human. And therefore it was necessary for him to suffer, and to experience limitation: as it is said, “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered, and was made perfect” (Hebrews 5:8).

Christ had to share our nature in order to redeem and glorify it, and that means He had to share our limitations too, including our powerlessness and our lack of knowledge and vision. Before the Incarnation, and after the Ascension, He shared every bit of His father’s power, glory, and wisdom. But for those thirty years that He walked on earth, for that single moment in time that “the Word was made flesh”, He took on a human form, with human limitations and abilities. Over a half century before Christ, looking into the far future, Isaiah saw just what sort of human He would become: “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3).We have a glimpse of what Jesus was like before and after the Incarnation. We know that through Him heaven and earth came into being: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). And we know that at the end of the world, He will appear in glory, crowned with many crowns, and able to effortlessly destroy evil on earth, as St. John the Divine tells us.

Imagine having all that power, glory, and ability, and choosing to give it up, and to become a suffering servant. During that thirty year span of time, the powers that He had came from His father, working through him. When He was tempted to escape crucifixion, He did not say, “Don’t you know that I could destroy Pilate and his men with a flick of my fingers?” No, He said “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53). When He suffered in the garden, He shared not only our pain but also our weakness and powerlessness, and that is why “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him, and being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:41-44). I found this passage baffling when I read it: how could the Son of God be “weak”, and why would he need an angel to strengthen him?

We are almost compelled to acknowledge that during those thirty years, He had stripped himself of His divine powers, and had emptied himself of all power except that which His Father chose to give him. He loved us so much that, though He was possessed of unimaginable power and authority, equal in every way to His father, though He was the one “through [whom] all things were made” in heaven and on earth, He chose to strip himself of all that, and become the son of a carpenter, born in a stable, dying with vinegar on his lip, a fatal wound in his side, with thorns on his forehead, under a hot Jerusalem sun. He had stripped himself of His perfect wisdom, His perfect foresight, His perfect vision, His perfect power, His perfect ability to create, His perfect ability to destroy, His perfect ability to overcome the laws of nature. In His human form, he had left to him one reserve of perfection that He retained of His divine nature: his perfect virtue, and his perfect love. And through retaining His perfect, divine ability to love, even when subjected to human limitation and human imperfection, even when the future was veiled from him, when he was subjected to the lack of scientific knowledge of his time, even when he had deprived himself of the ability to know who had touched him or when the world would end, He perfected human nature through His own human form, and won for those he loved an eternal victory over death, evil, and the world.

“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”