Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on 16 August 2015 on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary
Although in one sense we are taking a one week break from our deeper analysis of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in another sense we are not taking a break but rather looking at a relevant case study. As James Baum reminded me yesterday, there is a strong tradition in the Church taught in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Roman Catholicism that the city of Ephesus in western Turkey is where Blessed Mary along with the Saint John the Beloved Disciple went to live out the rest of her earthly days. Ephesus today is a major site of Christian pilgrimage for that reason—James himself has been there. And so as we have been considering in our sermon series on Ephesians the themes of Remnant doctrine, vocation, predestination, community life of the baptized and others, our celebration today of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary is an opportunity to reflect upon how those themes must be lived out through adventurous obedience, which Mary above all creatures demonstrates and teaches.
I would like to begin by hearing again our Collect appointed for this day. “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.” Again we have a prime example of how our Collects express doctrine. Some people call Anglican Christianity to task for a lack of clearly expressed confession of our doctrine, yet they overlook what it right in front of their noses. Our liturgy, both Divine Office and Mass as well as other sacramental rites, articulates what we believe, and does so in the mode of prayer. In today’s Collect, we acknowledge the Assumption of Mary in the words “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary.” And we make petition to God that we “may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom,” and this acknowledges the doctrine of Theosis, of growing into unity with God. It expresses this doctrine by means of Blessed Mary, and it presumes that this growing and reforming is a journey, a pilgrimage, of discipleship that begins in this life and continues into the next.
It is in thinking about discipleship that one of my first remarks must be to congratulate Nina Dorenbos, who this morning is receiving the Sacrament of Holy Confirmation. Confirmation, particularly in the manner in which it is handled here at Saint Paul’s, is a Sacrament the preparation for which is maturity, of intentional, that is, authentic cooperation with grace within our community, of being equipped for the work of ministry, of building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12), of learning and studying the core dimensions of Catholic Christianity in the Anglican tradition.
Let me join the chorus of prayer that celebrates Nina’s preparation for this Sacrament. Of her own free will, Nina spent two years in this parish’s Adult Theology Class, meeting weekly over the academic years and more intensively this summer to complete it. Her choice is one that cuts against the grain of our society in which obedience to Jesus in the Catholic tradition in not a high priority, or even a priority at all, and let me say a brief word about that.
It is not only the most courageous choice available to us, to be a disciple of Christ today. It is also a choice that is difficult because of the profound confusion about discipleship that was present throughout the entire 20th century and is still with us today. This confusion arose because of the incredible upheavals to Western society born of overwhelming technological evolution into a “global village,” of two catastrophically devastating World Wars, of the actuality of nuclear warfare and threat of still more, of totalitarian governments and unspeakable evil in Nazi concentration camps and elsewhere, of disruptions and ruptures in community life, ethnic identity, family life, massive reconfigurations of our transportation on land and in the air, a globalized economy, this Information Age, and so on and so forth. All of that on top of the Industrial Age right before, the Enlightenment before that, and the introduction of the Gutenberg Press which provided the technological basis for the various Reformations in the 16th century which we still have not fully resolved.
All of this adds up I am saying to a crisis of discipleship, because one cannot easily be a disciple without a clear sense of identity within a community and hence of role within the world. Such massive upheaval, threats of catastrophe, and awareness of unfathomable evil makes it very difficult to perceive grace. And without perceiving grace, of God’s activity, it is very difficult to respond to the invitation God offers to grow in relationship with Him.
Now, whether or not Pope Pius XII had in mind this crisis of discipleship in 1950 when the papal definition of the Assumption of Blessed Mary was promulgated, I am not able to say. But I would suggest we consider the possibility that this dogmatic definition can best be understood as an ascetical response by the Church to what is nothing less than pastoral maelstrom. What I am proposing is that the explanation that “having completed the course of her earthly life, Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” in fact is a tremendous and necessary teaching about discipleship. It teaches that because Mary is completely in heaven with the Triune God, no matter how difficult, how confusing, how irrational, painful, or wrenching our circumstances might be, the response is to look to Mary, to learn from Mary, to try to perceive Christ in the world as Mary perceived Him, to understand how she responded within the various circumstances described in the Gospels, and with confidence try to do the same in our lives, in our circumstances—for in this way lies Christ. Look to how Mary responded to God’s will for instruction on how we are to do the same. But how, the question must be asked, are we to perceive like Mary the will of God?
Let it be said that “the will of God, in so far as it is hidden from our eyes, is the most profound of mysteries, the most holy of sacraments. God reveals it, in His own divine and inscrutable fashion, to the souls which His grace has made worthy to receive the secrets of heaven. What He reveals is more than sacred, more than God-like; it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit, Who is the divine will in person, and Who is responsible for bringing into existence out of nothingness all that God has made. ‘Come now,’ the Psalmist tells us, ‘and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth.’” (William of St Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, XIII)
Yet I ask again, how do we learn how to look upon the works of the Lord, upon the awesome things he has done on earth? How do we learn how to see everything around us as grace, as present with God, as God being present in all things great and small?
It is here we can affirm because the Church has taught this from its beginning: we learn through Mary. Mary teaches us how to see Christ. Mary teaches us how to hear Christ. Mary teaches us how to respond to Christ with our bodies and minds. In short, Mary teaches us how to perceive Christ through our life. At the ascetical core, Mary teaches us the proper mode of perception that leads by grace to salvation in Christ. Assumption, then, as the dogmatic explanation by means of Mary of the doctrine of Theosis, is necessary in order to affirm Mary’s teaching ministry definitively and for all time.
What do I mean by teaching ministry? I mean what is in Scripture. Mary’s episodes captured in Scripture describe and illustrate what this mode of perception entails. In the Annunciation, for example, we learn we are to listen for God, which means listening to God. When He tells us something, to ask for clarification, to honestly question what He is saying, even to be confused—is not only OK, but it is holy, for it allows for mystery yet says Yes to God—“Let it be to me according to your Word” is the lifeblood of discipleship.
There are more examples. In the Visitation with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary teaches us that perceiving Christ is an activity of pure joy and reverence. And yet in the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon’s great words teach us that Mary lived the rest of her life toward the cross—“And a sword shall pierce through your own soul also,” she was told. When she and Joseph found 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, we see Mary was still working through her son’s true identity, still wrestling with it, and so our own wrestling with the truth of Jesus is not to be despised but again to be regarded as holy. At the Wedding at Cana, a more mature Mary asks the adult Jesus for help, and instructs, “Do whatever he tells you.” Hear the complete abandonment to Jesus in those words. Her devotion and adoration of Jesus teaches us to do the same when our understanding of Jesus’s identity matures.
So think of these characteristics: listening, joy, reverence, being centered on the cross, wrestling with the truth of Jesus, and abandonment to and adoration of Jesus whom we ask for help—these are core principles of discipleship taught by Mary and add up to a Marian mode of perceiving reality, what I have elsewhere called “Marian awe.” This mode of perception is something we grow into, because Mary herself grew into it. And we can be assured that all of this leads by grace to salvation in Christ because the dogma of the Assumption explains that Mary, perceiving the world in this way, is now in heaven, and hence teaches us how to cooperate with grace, which means she teaches about walking the road of discipleship, the journey of obedient pilgrimage,
This is really what it is all about—cooperating with grace, and being equipped by the Church to cooperate with grace. Learning how to cooperate with grace is the preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. Grace is everywhere, for God is active in the life of Saint Paul’s, Riverside. God is active in the lives of its parish family. God is active in the life of Nina Dorenbos, present in her environment, her network that includes her family, relatives, neighbors, classmates, teachers, of course this parish family. We pray He continues active as Nina heads to Indiana University this week. God was active in inviting her to this deeper commitment to Christian discipleship, in helping Nina to pursue her preparation week to week, month to month. We are about to witness the culmination of a two-year-long expression of Nina Dorenbos saying Yes to God—Yes to His presence, His invitation—Yes to God’s will.
And let us also give witness to Blessed Mary falling asleep, her dormition, and being assumed into Heaven to be its Queen, and may we know that “every way we imitate Mary becomes a prayer to God for enlightenment. It will be a sign of love, a pledge of your devotion, a declaration that you depend upon Him for the fulfillment of all your desires.” (William of St Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, XIV)
Pray for us O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.