FEAST OF (THE ASSUMPTION OF)
THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
ST. MATTHIAS – 14 AUGUST 2011
The 15th of August is a great day of celebration for millions of Christians around the world. The Orthodox keep it as the Feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, which literally means the ‘falling asleep’ of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is a somewhat quieter, more reflective day than the Roman Catholic celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which is the doctrine of the translation of Mary – body and soul – from earth into heaven without experiencing a human death. So, in Catholic countries, many of which still have a public holiday on, the Assumption is a day of processions, candles, fireworks and general partying. Since the Common Worship liturgies came in, the C of E has transferred the principal feast day of Mary from 8 September (traditionally Mary’s birthday) to 15 August, so now the vast majority of Christians honour Mary on the same day.
Two views of Mary. First, what we might term the ‘exalted’ – and perhaps more traditional – view. The Virgin Mary is one of the most frequent subjects of Christian art. She can be portrayed as the prayerful and beautiful figure at the Annunciation; the joyful mother at the Nativity; the Woman of Sorrows standing by the cross or, in
keeping with today’s festival, the Queen of Heaven. Or she can be a combination of any or all of these. Mary is quite literally an iconic figure. We don’t really have much of an idea about the real woman behind these artistic interpretations, and so our
picture of her, and often our attitude towards her, is inevitably shaped by them.
Second, there is what could be called the more ‘down to earth’ view. From very early on in Christian history, many believers have felt a bit dissatisfied with the fact that the NT is rather short on the sort of details we would really like to know about – the family histories, the small-scale, gossipy facts. Barely 100 years after the crucifixion,people were producing stories about Jesus’s background, to deal with what they thought were the really important questions: how did Joseph and Mary meet? Who were Jesus’s
grandparents? What was he like as a boy? And all the rest of it. Right across the centuries, the embellishments have appeared; the Victorians were particularly creative at filling in the gaps in our knowledge with stories, some of which are, to be frank, wildly fanciful and hilariously awful.
These two views illustrate a difficulty regarding Mary which has frequently seen Christians divided into two opposing camps. On the one hand, there is the arguably exaggerated Catholic view, which places Mary in such an exalted place in the scheme of redemption that she almost becomes a fourth member of the Trinity. On the other, there is a (sometimes rather extreme) Protestant view, in counter-reaction to all that, which regards Mary as something of a stumbling block. Some would almost like to forget that she ever existed, (save for the fact that she was around in Nazareth and Bethlehem at the right times), because of the risk that she might take something away from the worship of God and of Jesus. In other words, she played a purely functional role in the story of Jesus. But perhaps we should look somewhere between these two positions when thinking about Mary.
We cannot look at Mary without considering what she did: she brought Jesus into the world; she brought him up; she watched him die. As far as we can tell, she played quite a prominent role in the post-resurrection community. Her part – and her unique status – as a key element in the Christian story and tradition is beyond question, and it is right to honour that. But we may risk losing something if we fail to look beneath the halo.
Fr. Victor Stock, now Dean of Guildford, writes in his diaries of a Feast of the Assumption he spent in Italy, one of the Catholic countries where the day is still a public holiday. He describes the festivities – the Solemn Mass, the huge choir, the statue of Our Lady carried out of the church, the applause of the people, the human traffic jam, the release of doves, and the fireworks. A grand, if quite chaotic,
occasion. It didn’t all go smoothly: the sound speakers collapsed; then there was one dove which promptly flew straight into a wall and knocked itself out; and there were various other things which he recounts in highly amusing detail. But, he says, it was a typically Italian affair and a true festival day which people genuinely seemed to enjoy.
He ends his account with a really human touch. On the way back, he writes, I went
back into the church where Our Lady had been returned to her shrine, and
smelled cigarette smoke. Turning round, in my disapproving Anglican middle-class way, I found a lady of the town in platform cork shoes, torn stockings and a miniscule leopard skin miniskirt, with a cigarette in one hand, giving Our Lady a good talking to. When she finished saying whatever she wanted to say to the Virgin Mother of God, she transferred her cigarette to the left hand, made the sign of the cross with the right, dropped a slightly tipsy curtsey, and went back to work.
That vibrant diary entry encompasses the two views of Mary with which I began. First,
it tells of the Mary who is worthy of honour for who she was and what she did in response to God’s call, and whose place in heaven is certainly a cause for rejoicing. But, second, we are helped to resist the temptation to become too precious, or too over-pious, by pointing to Mary’s role as a figure who – despite her special place in heaven – remains accessible. Indeed, the Catholic tradition – which is, of course, very much part of our Anglican history and heritage – emphasizes her role as intercessor for those of us still very much on earthly ground. It seems to me that the real value of having an intercessor is in being able to be truly ourselves when we speak to them, like that Italian woman – to be honest, to tell it precisely as it is. This gives us the reassurance that, in so doing, the ordinary, everyday details of our lives, our joys and sorrows, doubts and fears, successes and failures and – in the light of recent events – our tragedies and our ways of working through them – which Mary experienced for herself when the violent crowd demanded the death of her son – all of these are important enough to be taken into the life of God.