Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
One of the recurring features of interviews with Olympic hopefuls and medallists is how important it is to have people around you to encourage you towards your goals and, hopefully, your success – family, friends, trainers, maybe the fan club and certainly fellow team members. Which just goes to show that we human beings tend to manage things best through mutuality and cooperation with each other, rather than entirely by ourselves. God, it seems, for some reason, has willed a world to exist in which we can’t be totally independent. And God isn’t, either. I guess things could have been set up in such a way that there’d be no need for Mary as a mother to Jesus, but God conceived things otherwise. Mary was an essential means by which the ‘Word was made flesh’, as John’s Gospel puts it, and God in Christ found his way into the world, not by dropping down miraculously from heaven, but by being ‘born of a woman’, as the Letter to the Galatians expresses it – conceived, carried, delivered, fed, nurtured – and then let go.
The significance of Mary is there in the gospels – in Luke primarily – but the writers have far too little information on her for popular Christian piety, so in earlier generations of the church we find writers busily filling the vacuum by supplying all sorts of biographical bits and bobs, like names for Mary’s parents (Ss. Joachim and Anne, according to Catholic tradition), which try to fill out the picture. There is one thing, though, that we don’t find in these biographical musings. Generally, if a town or city could do so, it was keen to claim to be the location where some great saint had died or was buried: Rome and St Peter, Durham and St Bede, St Albans and, guess who….. But nowhere laid claim to Mary. By the fifth century, stories had appeared that Mary had been miraculously preserved from death, at least in the usual physical, human sense. The Eastern church spoke of the ‘falling asleep’ – the koimesis (Greek) or dormition (Latin) – of the Virgin, which is how today’s feast is described in the Anglican 1928 Prayer Book, while other stories spoke of Mary’s body being carried to heaven by angels.
When all this came to official notice, the Pope condemned it. Devotion to these traditions about Mary was so popular, however, that by the 9th century, August 15th, the Eastern feast of the Dormition, had been adopted in the West under the title of the Feast of the Assumption, the bodily taking up of Mary into heaven. Theologians continued to resist making it into a doctrine, but pressure was building up. Eventually, an 8-million strong petition arrived at the Vatican in 1940, of all years – extraordinary, given all that was going on in Europe at that time. A decade later, Pope Pius XII at last declared the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven to be an article of faith. Thus the church responded to this devotion to Mary in pretty much the same way that our church addressed the difficult issue of divorce and re-marriage in church, and what some predict will also happen with same-sex marriage: first, the church ignores it; then condemns it; next, it makes some grudging concessions; finally, it says that was what it thought all along, though we will allow individual clergy freedom of conscience in making local decisions about it.
You may see the Feast of the Assumption as marking a theoretically observable historical event. You may prefer to see it as expressing some truths of faith. But what truths? Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, said it brought the feminine into God and offset the stern, male polarity of Father and Son. Perhaps…. For my money, I see it as a moment especially to contemplate that verse in Mary’s song, the Magnificat – which forms today’s Gospel reading – that God lifts up the lowly. The ‘lowly’ certainly include the poor and those who are oppressed, though they can also include any of us who have a small hand in some great enterprise. Today, it could be said, is the feast of the exaltation of collaboration, of working together with each other.
We have seen that none of us manages anything significant totally by ourselves, and less privatised cultures than ours confess this openly. You may have heard, for example, the Yoruba saying about it taking a village to raise a child, while the Zulus say, ‘Umuntu ungumuntu ngabuntu’: a person becomes a person because of people. Closer to home, think of John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’. Think of those interminable lists recited by Oscar winners in Hollywood, or the more modest ones of this week’s Olympic medallists, of people they owed it all to – or, in at least one case, the people the athlete felt he had let down. I am reminded, too, of a passage near the end of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It makes the point vividly that all of us, not just Oscar winners or Olympic athletes, depend so much on others:
‘….the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’.
Acknowledging this mutual dependence is one of the necessities of life. But the Feast of the Assumption celebrates this necessity as a virtue, a thing to be exalted and magnified. Catherine of Sienna said that God told her, ‘I could well have made human beings in such a way that they each had everything, but I preferred to give different gifts to different people, so they would all need each other.’ And God could have brought about a kind of salvation untouched by human hand, but God preferred to do it in a way that needed a handmaid. And God does still. Therein lies our dignity and our glory, that God waits upon us for so much that he wills to have done in the world, and longs for each one of us to say, with Mary, ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’