Today, August 15th, is the Feast of the Assumption (for the Roman Catholic church and for many Anglicans), and the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos for the Orthodox and Oriental churches. (‘Assumption’ comes from the Latin ‘assumptio’ = ‘taking up’, do not be confused that it’s used in a sense contrary to the common English sense.) The two names connote more or less the same thing, with slight differences of emphasis: the day that Mary the Mother of God, most glorious and ever-virgin, was taken up into heaven, ‘body and soul’. You can look all throughout the world for the remains of Mary, for her tomb and her bones, but you won’t find them; they aren’t here. Mary, with her whole being and person, body and soul united, is in heaven. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about Mary’s soul rising to heaven. Of course her soul is in heaven; we knew that, for where else would it be? The meaning of the Feast of the Assumption is a bunch more bold and startling one: that Mary’s body did not remain here on earth either, but was lifted up to heaven, and that she is there in her full corporeality, body and soul, as all good people shall be when Christ returns and we experience the resurrection of the body.
There are slight differences of emphasis between the West and the East in regards to the question of whether she died and was then resurrected, or whether she was transported to heaven without dying. My understanding is that the Eastern churches tend to believe the former (this was the older belief) while Catholics and Anglicans who accept the doctrine believe she went straight to heaven, body and soul, without dying. I tend to favour the second interpretation: it seems to fit better with some enigmatic verses that seem to foretell the Assumption, for example, ‘In kinship with Wisdom is immortality’ (Wisdom 8:17, using ‘Wisdom’ of course as a symbol of Christ), but in fairness, the early legends and apocryphal writings concerning the Assumption do include references to her soul ascending to heaven first, and her body ascending three days later, in an echo of Christ’s resurrection. Of course, it’s not impossible that this did not represent _death_ in the sense we understand it, but rather some alternative temporary interruption of the relationship of body and soul, some hypothetical means of leaving this earth, that would have been meant for an unfallen humanity. C.S. Lewis speculates a little bit about what the end of life would be like for an unfallen race, in his book ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, and his account of ‘unbodying’ a dead creature on Mars bear some similarities to the accounts of the Assumption. It’s death in a sense, but not death in the sense we understand it on earth (he makes this point very clearly in the sequel, ‘Perelandra’.) Death had no power over Mary’s body, as St. John makes clear when he depicts her escape from the clutches of the dragon: “And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly from the dragon’s wrath….” (Revelation 12:14). Understood in this way, the Catholic/Anglican and Orthodox understandings of the end of her life may not be incompatible at the deepest level.
The apocryphal stories about the Assumption aren’t history, of course, nor canonical scripture, but it seems reasonable to take them as having some core of remembered traditions and some kernels of truth which were passed down over the roughly five centuries, and it’s worth taking a look at them to see what we can extract. One particularly touching aspect of the accounts of the Assumption, purportedly deriving from the memories of St. John himself, suggests that Christ responded to a direct prayer from his mother. It wasn’t a prayer for her to be assumed into heaven- quite the opposite! One can’t imagine the embodiment of humility and modesty, she who had said of herself, “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1:48) and submitted to her God by saying, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” (Luke 1:38), asking for the estate of Queen of Heaven. In contrast, she asked for something much more modest: “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”.
Picture this woman, who had lost her only child, whom she had loved more than anything in this world, and seen the Apostles go their separate ways, left behind with only St. John to take care for her. St. John tells us that she regularly burnt incense at his tomb as an act of worship, but that in her loneliness, she was pining for her lost child and wishing, no doubt with any hope of the wish being granted, that Christ should return to her. It’s a wish that we can all identify with, at some level. I lost my father when I was about seventeen, and for a year or two afterward I would have periodic dreams where he was somehow returned to my family, and where he was talking with us and living with us again. How much more does this have to be the case for someone who loses a child? When I lived in Madagascar I knew quite a few families who had children die, and it tears people apart like few other things can. One couple I knew ended up separating after their child died of malaria; the relationship had been forever destroyed by the memory of what they had lost. And for Mary, it was even worse in a sense, for her son had been returned to her for forty days, before leaving again, this time for good. She had had a taste of the sweetness of resurrection, the wonder and joy of having her dead child returned to her, in the fullness and strength of new life; but all too quickly, the taste turned bitter as she realized this was just temporary, and that she would soon have her child taken from her again. Of her experience of the Lord’s resurrection, it could truly be said, “It was in my mouth sweet as honey, but as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter” (Revelation 10:10) and I’m sure St. John, who had lived with her and cared for her every day since Christ ascended, was thinking of her when he wrote these words.
Of course, on another level, what she was asking for was impossible, and I’m sure she realized it. The dead don’t return to this earth; even when resurrected, their destiny is somewhere else. I’m sure she knew that, and she was praying more than anything to console herself, asking for something she knew was impossible, more out of blind, baseless hope then out of any belief that the prayer could be answered. She had no idea, of course, that God had plans for her that were much greater, deeper, and richer then she could ever have imagined. The goodness and glory of God, and the destiny he has planned for each of us, is something that with our limited imaginations, and our horizons and thoughts limited by the contours of a harsh, fallen, and often painful world, we can’t even conceive of. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9) says St. Paul, and there are good reasons for this: our ability to think and envision the future is limited by our experiences and by our capacity to imagine, and finite creatures that we are, these are limited and often pitifully small. God doesn’t share our limitations, and while we can’t see or even accurately imagine the destiny he has in store for us, we can be assured it is greater and better than anything we could ever conceive of; any analogy we make to heaven must necessarily fall short of the reality. Imagine the best thing in this world you can, take it to its perfection, and even still, we can be sure heaven will be better, for God loves us and wants the best for us even more than we do for ourselves. So it was with Mary, the Mother of God.
Christ had mercy on his mother and granted her prayer, but he granted it in a way that she could never have foreseen, something beyond the capacity even of this sinless and morally perfect woman to imagine. Rather then descending once again to share life with his mother, he promised her, and his promises are always fulfilled, to raise her into heaven, where she would be crowned forever as its Queen, and where she could remain forever close to her Child; as it was said of old, “Upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalm 45:9), and as much as this was true of Solomon, it was fulfilled even more truly when the Mother of God took her place in heaven. The most St. Mary could imagine, the greatest promise she could ask for, was for her son to return to her, at least for a little while; but God the Word, who had taken human nature from her, was able to imagine a greater and better good for her than she could imagine for herself, and where she had hoped to be united with her son on earth, he summoned her to be united with him forever in heaven, perfect in her corporeal being, with no need of death or resurrection. In her earthly life, Mary never imagined what she would one day become. We can search the New Testament for hints that Mary was aware of her full glory, and find nothing, for she seems to have seen herself as nothing more than a carpenter’s wife, socially downtrodden and economically poor, living off bread and occasional broiled fish. Perfect in other virtues, as tradition tells us, St. Mary the Mother of God was perfect also in humility. But God had greater plans for her, and of this meek and humble Palestinian peasant girl, he one day intended to make the Queen of Heaven. He granted not only her prayer, but those of her parents who had asked, “Bless her with the last blessing, that shall be forever” (Infancy Gospel of James 6:4). No doubt they had merely meant ‘forever’ to mean a very long time, in the figurative sense that people normally use it; perhaps they were asking for a blessing that would last all of Mary’s natural life. But God understood them more deeply than they even understood themselves, and granted them a blessing that would, truly, last forever; the blessing of immortality, spiritual and corporeal, that would raise Mary to heaven and allow her a resting place there for all of eternity.
Consider again St. John’s beautiful and haunting vision; consider it in detail, and let the words wash over you like the ocean’s wave at high tide; drink their beauty as you would drink the water of a cool and pure mountain lake. “And there appeared in heaven a great portent: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and crowned with twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). The stars, sun and moon represent, I think, the holy angels, for St. John calls the angels, “the stars of heaven…” (Revelation 12:4).. It’s a very old tradition in the religions of the world to associate various gods, or angels, with the sun, moon, and planets of the solar system (C. S. Lewis, again, uses this tradition in his Space Trilogy, in which the moon and various planets are associated each with their own tutelary angel, which he identifies with the Greek gods). In the Hindu temple near my hometown, there’s a piece of devotional statuary depicting nine important deities, associated with the highlights of our night sky: the sun, the moon, and seven of the planets in our solar system (the seven of which we were aware before modern astronomy). Of course this association isn’t literal, it’s symbolical; the sun, moon, and stars (or planets; in ancient times the distinction wasn’t clearly made) are used to represent and symbolize high spiritual powers- as we can see, in Hindu, Greek and Christian tradition alike, and in other traditions as well.
St. John borrows that imagery here, and by showing Mary clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars, he is illustrating that, though a created human being with human limitations, she has been raised to a rank higher then the highest angels. As the ‘Axion Estin’ tells us, she is ‘more glorious than the cherubim, and incomparably more honourable than the seraphim.” Who could possibly have expected, or hoped for this? How far had she come, this Palestinian peasant girl, wife of a carpenter, a consecrated virgin who had seen her only son handed over to horrible death, who had spent her life in poverty and oppression, mocked as Galilean provincials, struggling for each day’s food, enduring heat and drought in a dusty backwater of a vast and tyrannous empire. For this unassuming, humble, gentle and giving young woman who said ‘Fiat’ to the angel’s entreaty, was raised to a throne higher than any of the angels, and far higher than any other human being could ever aspire to. “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased,” said Jesus, “and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14); could there be a better fulfillment of Our Lord’s saying than the assumption of Mary? For above us are the holy angels, but above them is the Mother of God; and her heavenly throne she owes to two things; to the humility that led her to give up all she had been planning for her life, and to submit to the request of the heralding archangel, and even more importantly, to the boundless and limitless love of her Son.
This is always the way with the promises of God: that the good that He desires for us is greater than the greatest good we can desire for ourselves. Ask yourself what you desire in life, and remember that the most and best we can desire for ourselves in a shadow of what God has planned. The trees of heaven, after all, will be green, fruitful, and life-giving to a degree that the trees of this earth can only be pale copies or shadows of. The light of heaven will be a light so bright that the sunlight we experience on earth is only a shadow of it. So it is with everything good that God intends for us. We spend so much of our time pursuing the things of this earth- food, sex, wealth, fame, beautiful things- but we forget that these things, good in themselves, derive their goodness from God, and that to pursue them to the detriment of pursuing Him is only to harm ourselves. Because the greatest good and most intense happiness we can enjoy on our own, is always less than the joy we will one day enjoy when we are in his presence, and enter into what he has prepared for us. “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34); how happy will we be when we can hear these words spoken and know that they are sure and true? Because what the Assumption of Mary tells us is that what God has prepared for us is greater than anything we can hope for, and that he has a plan for us, as he had for St. Mary, greater than any plan we could possibly make for ourselves.
Mary’s sojourn in heaven, of course, was not to be continuous. The prayer of the Abbe Perreyve invokes her thus, “Most blessed virgin, in the midst of thy days of glory, forget not the sorrows of this earth….” This prayer, devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes, was inscribed on a Marian prayer card that was given to me by an Episcopal priest of my acquaintance. This happened just before I left for Madagascar, on an adventure unlike any I could have expected, and on an experience that was to change me, as much as (I hope) I was able to bring change into the community where I worked. When I started the three years of my life in Madagascar, I was often lonely, worried about the future, unsure whether my work would bear fruit, and whether I would be welcomed, and concerned about a whole slew of tropical diseases. I would take solace, often, in looking at the prayer card, remembering the love with which it had been given to me, and praying in Abbe Perreyve’s words. I felt protected while I was in Madagascar, watched over by a guiding and protective force, and I felt that, in some sense, the Mother of God was looking out for me. I was already on my road to the Christian faith then, but my experience helped me to realize the importance that the Mother of God has to our faith, and helped to push me in the direction of those traditions, like Anglo-Catholicism, that give her due honour.
Many people have experienced the presence of St. Mary in their lives of course, and not just as a protective force as I have, but in much deeper and richer forms; through direct mystical experience. I had a friend once who, when travelling through South America, spoke with an imprisoned former drug lord; the drug dealer had had a change of heart, abandoned his life of crime, and handed himself over to the police, when he looked into the clouds and had a vision of St. Mary in all her glory. Some of these experiences are explicitly commemorated as sites of pilgrimage today, like the town of Fatima where the three children had a direct experience of the Virgin Mary and were given visions of the future, including the re-conversion of Russia to Christianity. This must have seemed impossible when it happened; Russia was then a Christian power, so it must have seemed unlikely it would turn to atheism. But the turn did come, less than a year after the three children at Fatima has their vision; and twenty years later, at the darkest hour of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, it must have seemed impossible that the words of St. Mary at Fatima would ever be fulfilled. Yet fulfilled they were. Stalin died twenty years later, possibly poisoned at the hands of his own henchmen, and gradually that long-suffering country began the slow process of dismantling his terror-state that had enforced atheism by the sword. The Soviet regime fell in 1990, which brought many evils to an end, but brought more, equal and opposite evils to replace them; yet one sign of hope amid the turmoil was that Russia began returning to its spiritual roots. Who could have imagined this, in 1928 or in 1948? Yet by that same token, which citizen of Nazareth in A.D. 12 would have imagined that the peasant mother of the precocious boy Jesus, would one day be exalted higher than the angels, ‘more glorious than the cherubim?” God always has a plan that we can see only dimly, if at all, but is better than anything we could imagine.
The Mother of God is not merely passively enthroned in heaven, but continues to try to help us, and to seek our good, in heaven and on earth. St. John, at the culmination of his brilliant vision of heaven, tells us that ‘the Spirit and the Bride say, Come……and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely’ (Revelation 22:17). The image of the “Bride” is often taken to represent the church, but that can’t be the case here, for just previous to this John makes it clear that he is speaking to the church, not speaking of it: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches” (Revelation 22:16). I think that the Bride here represents St. Mary, the Spouse of the Spirit, as described by Prudentius, "The unwed Virgin espoused the Spirit", and figuratively spoken of in the Song of Solomon. St. Mary, always full of pity and solicitude for the human race, cares for us with perfect human love, just as her Son cares for us with perfect Divine love. She pleads for us, at the gates of heaven, just as her prototype, Queen Esther, pled for her people in the court of the Persian King. To those outside the gates of heaven, she says, along with the Spirit, “Come!” None of us can be good on our own, we can do so only with each other’s support and help, and one of the most precious supporters and helpers we have is the Mother of God, who in her charity and love cares and prays for each of us from her throne. And we can be sure that her Son hears and honours her requests and prayers, just as he did at Cana. Her cry, “Come” at the end of St. John’s Revelation is a reminder to us not only of what she does for us, but of what we can do, and must do, for each other.
This week following the Assumption, let’s remember the power and love of God, that brings glory out of humility, strength out of weakness, and splendour out of poverty and oppression, and let’s remember too, how much we need St. Mary, and how much we need each other; and that whatever God has planned for us will be as far beyond anything we could hope for, as His plans for St. Mary were beyond her meek and humble prayer.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.