Revelation 11.19, 12.1-6, 10
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The Calendar of the Church of England designates today, the fifteenth day of August, as the festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the wider church, today is celebrated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary if you are a Roman Catholic, or as the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary if you are Orthodox.
So what is it that we are actually celebrating today?
The first thing to say is that whereas for Roman Catholics the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a doctrine that must be believed, at any rate since the Pope declared it as such in 1950, the Church of England says nothing one way or another about the Assumption. We are free to believe in it, or not, as the case may be. But it is also important to say that the Assumption is a belief that goes back a long way further than 1950, and has been widely believed since the early Christian centuries. The Orthodox belief in the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary is essentially the same idea.
And what exactly is that idea? It is the belief that at the end of her life, Mary was raised body and soul into heaven. The belief is not biblical, but it is old, going back to at least the fourth century. As Anglicans we are free to take it or leave it. But what does it mean; what is its significance?
All Christian devotion to Mary is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, all Christian devotion to Mary is based on the belief that “the Angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit”, and so “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”. In the wonderful words of St Anselm, the great eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, “He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary”; the world would not be redeemed, the Word of God would not be made flesh, without a Mother.
All Christian devotion to Mary is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, it is grounded in that belief that through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, the embryo Christ took flesh in her womb. And so all Christian devotion to the saints is also grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is not a zero-sum game: the holiness of the saints does not detract from the holiness of Christ. Rather, the holiness of the saints is the holiness of Christ. We will shortly say “Lord, you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness”, and so the same Holy Spirit, sent from the Father, that overshadowed Mary that the Word might be made flesh, the same Holy Spirit works in the lives of all the beloved of the Lord, forming us little by little in the image of Christ.
All Christian devotion to Mary is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, the belief in one Lord Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds, who was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. Mary was the first to hear the good news, and Mary received the words of the Angel with obedience and joy, despite the personal risk. “My soul magnifies the Lord”, she sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.
All Christian devotion to Mary is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, and the traditional belief in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary can be seen simply as an extension of the Incarnation. God reaches down to save us not simply through the teaching of useful and beautiful ideas, God reaches down to save us not simply on some rarefied spiritual plane, God reaches down to save us not as an abstract set of teachings; no, God reaches down to save us in flesh and blood, we are redeemed not only in minds but in our very guts. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus embraces body as well as mind; the whole human experience is renewed and restored and united with God. And so it is that in the words of the Apostles’ Creed we believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
All Christian devotion to Mary is grounded in the truth of the Incarnation, and the traditional belief in the Assumption can simply be seen as an extension of the Incarnation. Mary was the first to hear the good news, and she gave her assent in obedience and joy. In her, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that the flesh and blood existence of human beings might be redeemed and restored. And just as Mary was the first to hear the good news and to receive it with joy, so in the traditional belief Mary is the first, after Jesus Himself, to experience the fulness of risen life, and is taken up as a whole human being, body and soul, to live with Him for ever.
As Anglicans, the Assumption is not something that we have to believe in; we are free to take it or leave it. But why might it be interesting or important for us today?
I have spoken to you before about the dignity of the human body in the Christian faith, and the traditional belief in the Assumption serves to emphasise that point. Ours is not a faith of disembodied souls, it is not a faith of mere abstract ideas, it is an Incarnational faith, a faith that embraces the whole human being in its earthy fleshiness as well as in its extraordinary mental powers. And in an age which seems to me to be increasingly ill-at-ease with human earthly fleshiness, an age in which young people increasingly exist in disembodied online worlds, an age of complex issues around body image and exercise and food, an age in which some scientists and philosophers are playing with ideas of transhumanism, striving after immortality through artificial intelligence and related technologies, an age in which multifaceted environmental crises remind us of the limitations of our material existence, in our age, the traditional teaching of the Assumption, a belief that elevates the human body to a new and restored dignity, such a belief might after all have more sense about it than we first realise.
And so may Mary, blessed among women, pray for us,
that Christ may be formed in us,
that we may live in union of heart and will
with Jesus Christ, Her Son,
Our Lord and Saviour,
who lives and reigns with the +Father and the Holy Spirt,
One God, now and for ever.