+ In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
Early last month, I traveled from Palm Springs to Pasadena for a mediation. For those of you who are not lawyers, that’s a meeting between attorneys, their clients, and a neutral facilitator to try and get a case settled so as to avoid a trial. I guess that’s what Christian lawyers are supposed to do.
Now, a trip to Pasadena is no small endeavor for me. When I have a morning appearance west of Pomona, I always drive in the night before and stay in a hotel so I can get a good night’s rest. Rush hour traffic is something in which I refuse to participate. As I prepared for bed, apparently somewhere along the line I took off my three rings. They’re very important to me. Of course, I wear my wedding ring, but also my engagement ring and my law school class ring. After my relationship to God, my relationships to my wife and my work define who I am. I will always be her husband and always be a lawyer in addition to whatever other ministries God may call me. The next morning when I was having breakfast in the hotel dining room I noticed my rings weren’t on my paws. In a panic I went back to the room and looked everywhere for them. I couldn’t find them. I could not explain where they went. I thought maybe I had left them at home, but when I got back to Palm Springs, I checked the places I customarily take them off, but they were nowhere to be found. So I prayed, hoping they still existed. The whereabouts of my rings was indeed, at that time, a mystery to be urgently solved.
After her vigil at the foot of the Cross, and after her appearance at Pentecost, Mary mysteriously disappeared to parts unknown, at least as far as “The Bible”,” is concerned, that is, canonical scripture. John’s Gospel says the “beloved disciple” (meaning John) took her to his own home, wherever that was. By tradition, ultimately John ended up in a place called Patmos, which is an island in the Mediterranean sea. If just the Bible is to be believed, that’s all we know. Mary just disappeared, just like my rings. We don’t know if she died—like Moses, her body has never been found—or if she did die, where she was buried.
We know nothing for sure of the day, year, and manner of Mary’s departure. So where’s Mary’s right now? “Mary, where are you?” “Mary, I need you!” “Are you in heaven?” “Mary, we’d like to know what happened to you.” “We’d like to know where you are.”
But searching for Mary’s whereabouts is not the entirely same as trying to find my rings. Mary’s unexplained disappearance raises the issue of whether reliance on scripture alone is an appropriate way to approach all of one’s beliefs. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity, labeled as such, is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Our Lord himself did not rely alone on the Hebrew Scriptures, the Bible of his day, in promising his disciples the constant presence of the Holy Spirit who would lead them into ‘all truth’. Nor did he rely on scripture for his Sermon on the Mount.
There are a lot of other things near and dear to us as Christians that aren’t in the Bible. What did Jesus do from the time He was born to the time his public ministry began after his baptism? The Bible is silent. Where did Joseph, the putative father of Jesus, originate? How did Mary and Joseph meet? What ultimately happened to our Patron, St. Paul? And what about the Roman Empire destroying the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem in 70AD? Those are all significant historical events in the formation of the Christian Church yet they are nowhere in canonical scripture.
We Anglicans don’t look only to the Bible for all the answers. There’s also the traditions of the Church. The Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary is a tradition of faithful Christians to explain what happened to Mary after Jesus died on the cross and on Pentecost.
Calling out to Mary and asking where she is now is probably about the most informal Marian devotion she’s ever heard, but it illustrates the frustration we earthlings have with the world beyond us when there’s no clear answer, just as there was no clear answer in that moment of uncertainty when I thought I had lost my rings.
We’re accustomed to space, time and distance in concrete, earthly terms, something we can experience with our senses, or at least, experience objectively, like I was trying to figure out where my rings were by just using my brain. When that didn’t get my anywhere, I gave up the rational process of searching and turned to faith. I prayed.
What is Faith? It is not a logical search for certain answers like trying to retrace my steps or trying to remember what I did with my rings. The biblical definition of faith, found in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That is about as unconcrete, unobjective as one can get. Just like the virgin birth, the miracles that Jesus performed, the resurrection, and the ascension, we have to move beyond the concrete physical world in figuring out what happened to Mary.
A good starting place might be today’s Collect:
“O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom.”
While that Collect doesn’t explicitly say there was in fact an Assumption, it definitely alludes to the possibility… the words “you have taken to yourself” and “share with her the glory of your eternal Kingdom…” invite one to at least consider the possibility that somehow God brought Mary to himself and that she now shares God’s Kingdom. The point is, Mary ended up somewhere, just like my rings.
The idea that Mary was “assumed” into heaven after her death was first expressed in narratives of the fifth and sixth centuries. Even though these doctrines were never official, they bore witness to a very early belief in the idea that God took Mary’s body into heaven after death. A detailed account of the Assumption is found in the New Testament Apocrypha called “The Assumption of the Virgin” St. Gregory of Tours provided a rationale for the tradition, which is related to her having been preserved from original sin. He said that it is inconceivable to think Mary’s sinless body, likened to the Ark of the Covenant which was made of incorruptible wood, should decay in the grave. The text, ‘Rise thou and the ark of thy strength” found in Psalm 132, was understood to mean that it was God’s will that, as Christ had ascended, so too Mary would be received into heaven. Mary’s presence in Heaven can also be implied from today’s lesson from Revelations, which speaks of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” who was “given the two wings of the great eagle”.
If one goes strictly by the letter of canonical scripture we don’t know exactly how she got there, but we should recall that “assumptions,” as such, were not unknown in biblical times. In Genesis, God reached out and snatched Enoch as he went for a walk, and in Second Kings, God sent a chariot out to pick up Elijah.
The Assumption is not the only theory out there on Mary’s Departure. There’s also the Dormition theory. The Eastern Orthodox tradition believes that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that after her burial, her tomb, when opened, was found empty. Therefore, they concluded that her body had been taken up into heaven like those of Elijah, Enoch and maybe Moses.
Unlike the dualistic Puritans who denigrated the body in favor of the soul, the Assumption of Mary reminds us that whatever the weaknesses of our bodies after the Fall of humanity, the body, as such, remains good and is part of our ultimate destiny. When the fullness of Christ’s parousia (that’s a fancy word for the Second Coming) materializes, it will include our bodies, not only our souls. Although our glorified bodies will be subordinated to the spiritual order they will still be real bodies. The Christian hope is not just the immortality of the soul, which many non-Christians believe, but the “Resurrection of the Body” as we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed. The Assumption of Mary reminds us that our bodies too will be redeemed.
When God through the Angel Gabriel commissioned Mary’s ministry at the Annunciation, God defined a Church that lifts up the lowly and puts down the powerful by the strength of God’s hand. Perhaps in the Magnificat, we are introduced to Mary as personifying “Wisdom” (described in feminine pronouns throughout Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) and the Book of Wisdom itself. Wisdom’s immortal nature can be found at Ecclesiasticus, 24:9, “From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist.” The Assumption is a reminder that God can and will reach out and lift us up, if we just allow God to do that.
If we open our hearts to the idea that maybe there was Assumption, we can see, in the words of modern theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, that Mary “is the prototype of the Church in pilgrimage on earth. She is also the prototype of the permanent Church, established in heaven,” personifying the objective eternity of the Christian church.
Despite the radicalism of early Protestants with regard to many ancient Christian practices such as the Communion of the Saints, Penance, Purgatory, the Papacy, the priesthood, sacramental marriage, etc., it may surprise many to discover that Martin Luther and John Calvin were conservative as to the Blessed Virgin Mary. They accepted the traditional belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary (Jesus had no blood brothers), and her status as the Theotokos (Mother of God). To quote Martin Luther:
“God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary’s Son, and that Mary is God’s mother. . . She is the true mother of God and bearer of God . . . Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two Christs .. . just as your son is not two sons . .. even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone. (On the Councils and the Church, 1539).”
Many associate Martin Luther with the sola scriptura movement, but Luther never denied the bodily Assumption of Mary. In his sermon on the Feast of the Assumption in 1522, he stated:
“There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith … It is enough to know that she lives in Christ.”
The Anglican Church has no official stand on the doctrine of the Assumption. Some Anglicans believe in it, others believe in the Dormition, and still others don’t have any belief whatsoever about the situation. As Anglicans, we are free to choose whatever’s comfortable for each of us.
The Roman Church did not officially recognize the Assumption of Mary until 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared it as “dogma.” A recent attempt to reconcile Anglican and Roman beliefs about Mary was the Agreed Statement, also known as the Seattle Statement, published in May, 2005 by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission jointly appointed by the Anglican Communion and the Vatican to explore Marian issues, including the Assumption. For those Anglicans concerned that a belief in the Assumption doesn’t fit the Anglican maxim that “Holy Scripture contains everything necessary to salvation,” the Commission agreed, but determined that the doctrine of the Assumption, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of grace and hope outlined in the Agreed Statement, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the scriptures and the ancient common traditions. The Commission went on to state that Anglicans and Romans agree that the Assumption doctrine must be understood in light of Mary’s position as Theotokos, which arises from the Incarnation. Mary, as Theotokos, was special—Jesus took his human nature from her, and therefore, the way in which she departed from earth necessarily had to be special as well.
I know that for many Christians, the Bible is the beginning and the end of their faith. But we need to move beyond that. We have to recall that it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Church decided what was in the Bible and what was not. And must we accept that the whole of God’s important doings are confined to what’s in canonical scripture? I don’t think so. I propose we go beyond scripture and evaluate Christian doctrines with a utility test: does a particular doctrine promote the values that Jesus taught? Does it help the Church with its mission? That in my mind is the “litmus test” for doctrine. There’s a real danger in strictly construing for today’s purposes a set of documents written several mileniums ago for a society tied to a particular time and place. For example, the Bible never disapproves of slavery in either the Old or New Testaments, yet it’s obvious slavery and the values Jesus taught are inherently incompatible.
The doctrine of the Assumption isn’t just about answering the question of what happened to Mary. It’s about a demonstration of God’s power to lift up the lowly. As you will recall, in the Song of Mary, our Lady prayed, “for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden, and behold from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.” She also talked about God “exalting the humble and meek.”
If you believe God took Mary into heaven to himself as suggested in today’s collect, you accept that a church that believes in the Assumption of Mary doesn’t just use that theory only to explain what happened to her. A church that believes in the Assumption of Mary sees the power of God lifting up the lowly as it clothes the naked. A church that believes in the Assumption of Mary sees the power of God lifting up the lowly as it feeds the hungry. A church that believes in the Assumption of Mary sees the power of God lifting up the lowly as it houses the homeless. And Right here at St. Paul’s, the doctrine of the Assumption is at work in our Options Pre School, where God’s power will be at work lifting up lowly children from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing them the extra primary education they need to succeed in school and in life.
Today we will see the doctrine of the Assumption in action as we baptize Francesca Lucia. This doctrine, which teaches that God will exalt the lowly and lift them up, states emphatically that Jesus will pick up the little children in his arms just like today’s newest member of the Church and portray Francesca Lucia and all children as the ideal receptors of the faith with their innocence and openness to God and the message of his child Jesus.
I figured this all out on my own by using the senses and brain that God gave me. As an Anglican Christian, I don’t need a pope to make up my mind for me on the question of the Assumption of Mary. It is something I freely choose to believe, based on my appreciation of Mary’s role in mothering Jesus and my faith in God’s power to lift up the lowly. I’m glad I’m in a Church that has room for me, a Christian who believes that God reached out and lifted Mary up and took her to himself, or herself, whichever God might be, I really don’t know. There are some things about God that will always remain a mystery.
By the way, my case did settle at the mediation, and I did find my rings. They were in my pants pocket, packed in my suitcase. I don’t remember putting them there, but somehow, the power of God took care of me, as it did the Blessed Virgin Mary when her work here was completed.
As you walk out the door today, remember that God will take care of you. Remember to open your mind to the power of God to lift up the lowly and not close your mind when something isn’t in the Bible in black and white. AMEN.