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Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption

“That where I am, there ye may be also”
(John 14.3)

Summer in the Maritimes sometimes seems like a midsummer’s night dream, especially in these rural idylls and in the quiet beauty of such holy places as St. Mary’s, Crousetown. There is a marvelous providence, I think, in our midsummer feasts. They speak to our dreams and our hopes and give them deeper meaning; ultimately, they speak to the redemption of our humanity. August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is, we may say, a nine-day wonder which culminates in this lesser known feast, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on August 15th. Providentially, again, it seems to me, our Evensong lessons for the 11th Sunday after Trinity this year flesh out the meaning of our human hopes and aspirations signaled in these feasts.

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Hardly a midsummer’s night dream, you may think! And yet this first line of one of the secular songs of the Christmas season touches upon the holy mystery of Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation and the mystery of human redemption. It even echoes Zechariah’s prophecy which is read on the night before Christmas at Evening Prayer. It is exactly what we heard tonight in the last three verses of the first lesson [1].

“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord”… “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” In between, there is the hint of the universal significance for many, if not all peoples, of the return to Jerusalem. At the heart of it all is the idea of God’s dwelling in the midst of his people.

And, if Paul, in the second lesson [2], can say, through the dialectic of persecution and preaching, that “they glorified God through me,” how much more so, then, through Mary, the one in whom “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”? The Transfiguration and the Assumption speak to the radical consequence of that divine indwelling; the radical consequence of God’s dwelling with us is the hope of our dwelling with him. It is about our participation in the glory of God. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.” What is contained in that parenthesis – “and we beheld his glory” – is what we celebrate in the Transfiguration and the Assumption. We are being changed by what we behold. It is change that one can believe in; indeed, change that one can only believe in!

It means, of course, our transformation. The Transfiguration of Christ – “his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” – points to the transformation of our humanity. Such is the meaning of God’s engagement with our humanity; it is about the hope of glory. The epistle readings throughout the Trinity season speak repeatedly to this theme of our being transformed by grace into glory. Ultimately, what we hope for ourselves is what we celebrate as realized in Mary.

Near the front of the Prayer Book, you will find a calendar for each month [3] with a number of days and dates that span the centuries from the New Testament age to the twentieth century. It presents a pageant of the Christian faith over the course of time; the parade of time sanctified, we might say. It reminds us of the continuum of the Faith, of the “great cloud of witnesses” in whose fellowship we rejoice while we “run with patience the race that is set before us” so that “together with them [we] may receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.” And, sometimes, too, there is reference to some aspect or other of the life of Christ, and in relation to Christ, reference to certain celebrations of Mary. On page xi, you will find the month of August and for the fifteenth day, you will find “The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. No year is given. By all accounts, it must seem a most curious phrase. What does it mean?

It refers to the death of Mary but in the greater context of our Christian hope in the resurrection. The phrase itself is a wonderful euphemism, an ancient and biblical way of speaking about death, about our resting in Jesus. It is Mary’s requiescat in pace. The Falling Asleep is the literal English translation of dormition or κοιμησις. The Falling Asleep, the Dormition or the Assumption are all various titles for the Church’s remembrance of Mary’s death and her place in Christian teaching. The latter term belongs more to the Western Church. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Assumption of Mary became a dogma of the Faith as recently as 1950. For Anglicans, however, it cannot be required to be believed as essential to salvation. It belongs to pious and holy opinion as a kind of prayerful reflection upon the essentials of the Faith, particularly the dogmas of the Incarnation, Redemption and the Trinity.

The Scriptures tell us nothing about the death of Mary directly but the logic of this feast derives from what the Scriptures teach us about the role of Mary in the economy of salvation and about our hope. For what is redemption except the taking up of all things into God? “What is not assumed by God cannot be saved by God”, as Athanasius explains with respect to the doctrine of the Incarnation.

We have an end in God and that hope is understood as realized in Mary, that where Christ is, there she is, even as Christ prayed for us, “that where I am, there ye may be also”. If that is not true of her, then what hope can there be for any of us? He comes to us through her – such is the meaning of the Advent and the Nativity of Christ – and so we come to him through her. Mary, as even Luther and the Jesuits agree, does not want us to come to her but through her to him, ad Jesum per Mariam.

That hope is not just “pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by,” as if religion were merely “the opiate of the masses,” as someone who was once famous once famously said. It is also here and now. It shapes our lives, illuminating the darkness of our fears and anxieties with light and hope, with grace and glory. Mary is the temple of God, the “habitaculum dei”, the little dwelling place of God where, as John Donne so wonderfully puts it, “immensity [is] cloyster’d in thy dear womb”. She reminds us of the quality of our being with Christ.

That quality is about our waiting upon the words of Christ, “the measuring line” of the “breadth and length” of Jerusalem in us, as it were. The Church is profoundly and essentially Marian in keeping the words of Christ and pondering them, in letting their weight of holy understanding to sink into us and take shape within us, in desiring the indwelling Word to transform our hearts and minds and, indeed, our whole being. The body, too, is part of that mystery of redemption. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

What does that mean exactly? It is enough to say that we shall be like him who has become like us through Mary. For “we all,” says St. Paul, “with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” We are changed by what we hear and see. “Be it unto me, according to thy word,” Mary says.

“Guarda et escolta,” Dante is told in the terrestrial garden at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory in his superb allegory of the journey of the soul to God, the Divine Comedy. “Look and listen.” Only so, can we be made “pure and prepared to leap up to the stars”, to the paradise of God which is more than the garden of Eden, more than the seeming paradises of our summertime idylls.

Dante, in his Paradiso, coins a term in Italian to speak of this wonder. Trashumanar, transhumanised. The word captures, I think, the profound and great mystery of human redemption. We are more, though not less, than all of the bits and pieces of our fractured and fragmented lives, more, though not less, than all of the fragments of our memories and midsummer’s night dreams that we cling to in the ruin of our lives whether in the face of death and dying or in the face of the ups and downs of human experience. Through prayer and praise, through Word and Sacrament, we are being gathered into the mystery of the Trinity, into the communion of God.

What we celebrate in Mary is what we hope for ourselves and for one another. With Mary, we can sing and rejoice in the mystery of human redemption. The Lord who has “roused himself from his heavenly dwelling” to dwell with us through her goes to prepare a place for her and for us, that where he is, there we may be also. It is his word to us.

“That where I am, there ye may be also”

Fr. David Curry
The Feast of the Assumption
St. Mary’s, Crousetown
August 15th, 2010