May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
How churches mark this day is a bit of a fault line between traditions - there will be those resolutely keeping ‘The Eleventh after Trinity’, those who will roll all their celebrations for the Mother of Our Lord into one big annual, Feast, and other more 'catholicky' parishes who will specifically mark The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It so happens, that we find ourselves in this latter Feast today and so I think it right that we explore why a little.
In the orthodox and catholic church calendars, Mary has many specific days on which the specific events of her life are marked; there is her birth, her purification, the presentation, the annunication, the visitation, the immaculate conception - and then today’s her Assumption , which is the feast that marks the final earthly Marian tradition - when Mary the Mother of Our Lord, is taken by God up into heaven. You will likely know about this feast feast from the paintings of Mary, billowing robes, voluminous clouds, and her eyes fixed firmly heavenwards as her feet levitate above the ground. Images that began many hundreds of years ago.
Which type of church are we, you may well be wondering.
Though we aren’t a particularly Marian Benefice, Our Lady does indeed hold her presence in both of our churches. In St Andrew’s there is the window where her statue is accompanied by a little blue candle, just as in St Peter’s we have her statue in the niche, also accompanied by a blue candle. And in both churches, fresh flowers are left by her side as a witness and act of love to her place in our church, just as they would be in a Lady Chapel of larger churches. Our Lady has also made her presence felt more keenly over the last two weeks with the emergence of a new Rosary Group and with Kay’s article on the Angelus in the latest Cross Keys. There can be no doubt that she rustles her blue robes in our benefice and there are those of us who find comfort and peace in her doing so. In fact I think she has been rustling them rather more of late …
I know that some christians struggle with Mary’s role and place in the church. The various Marian Dogmas bring a heady mix of beliefs that cause points of differentiation between the denominations and traditions of the church - one day I hope Fr Joe will share his research with us all on that. But for here and today, the one thing that might help unify us in the importance of honouring and remembering Mary comes not from the Vatican but rather from the Eastern traditions where she is known as the ‘Theotokos’ - the God bearer … and if all Christians are called to bear Christ in the world - then looking respectfully towards the one who did it first of all may not be such a contentious thing.
But we are still left with this question; Why on earth, or in heaven, do we keep this feast of her Assumption, when our last actual Gospel sightings of Mary at the foot of the cross, when Jesus entrusts her into the care of the beloved disciple, then we hear that she is in the upper room, praying with Jesus’ brothers and waiting for the Holy Spirit. Then we hear nothing more of her life in scripture.
Mary’s whole story in the Gospels is related to the role she plays in God’s plan which she sees through from beginning to end - she’s there at the birth, there at the death, there at the Ascension and even at Pentecost … and then once all of this is done, we simply don’t hear of her again. Tradition suggests that she likely lived a good while longer, that she grew to be an older woman, maybe even a grandmother, a great grandmother, who knows. But the idea that she is no longer of note for authors of the scriptures once her purpose has been fulfilled is a troubling one …
It is troubling because it plays into a prevalent and worrying perception held within society and sadly even the church that we are only of value or interest when we are doing things, and then of no value once we stop. That usefulness is the gateway to belonging. That the slowing down of our bodies and abilities is somehow a crime, a thing to be apologised for, and a thing that causes us to be forgotten. While I lament a society that suggests these things, I weep at those who believe the church to also be of the same mind and I can see how the story of Mary could have played right into this too … almost galvanise this into our images of God. Does God simply use us then forget us?
And this is where the Assumption suddenly becomes bright, it brings us up close with God’s view of these things. It arises from the image of Mary in Revelation where she is seated on a throne in heaven and the tradition has rightly asked - well how did she get there … and the Assumption was the answer. Yet beyond being a reconciliation of Scripture we actually learn something so crucial and important about God.
However many more years that Mary lived, however much older she grew to be, however infirm or vulnerable or in need of support she had become, he did not forget her. He did not use her, then discard her. He did not throw her aside when she stopped doing things, in fact he did the opposite. God in Christ, brought her up into heaven, he swept her, he remembered her, he kept his promises. And in doing so we are given the strongest evidence of how the church is also to understand itself.
I receive so many phone calls from people who are struggling with the idea that they can’t do so many things any more. The inevitability of time is unavoidable and it will come to us all - sooner or later. However, today’s Feast brings us a vital message:
Your value here in this place, is not, is not, dependent on the things you do.
It is not what you do, the roles you hold, the roles you held, that make you a member of this church. Your belonging to this church is purely based on the love that God has for you. If you can no longer fulfil a role, then that is God saying it is time for you to rest, time for you to pray, time for you to trust in His love. He will carry you now, if you let him. It is a fallacy … indeed a heresy … to think that God and God’s church only cares about you while you are useful to him - and he proves that to us in his love and care for Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. He promised to lift her, he promised to be with her, that she was blessed …. And he saw that promise through to the end … way beyond the journey she undertook for him, right into her twilight years, right into heaven.
I wonder if Mary, newly making her presence felt to us here in this place right now, is because this is the message that needs to be heard. She knew when to let go, she knew when to trust in God, she knew that her value, her dignity, and her worth was nothing to do with what she had ever done …. But what God had done for her, but what God had promised her, because of who God is.
Preached by the Rev'd Arwen Folkes (Rector) 15th August 2021