Homily: “On Saint Mary the Virgin”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, 2017.

This is the day when we recognize and venerate the Mother of God under the title “Saint Mary the Virgin.” It for The Episcopal Church is the central feast of Mary in the Church year. Now, this is fitting because it is also the central feast of Mary of the universal Church, although our sister churches use different names for it than we do.

In the Church of Rome, that is the churches of Roman Catholicism in communion with the Bishop of Rome, this day is celebrated as the Assumption of Mary. That term, “assumption,” is a technical term that refers to the understanding that upon reaching the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken by God—“assumed”—body and soul into heaven; meaning, her whole person and personality is alive and forever adoring God almighty in the Church Triumphant. Now, although when the Church of Rome made this an official teaching there was at that time, and it remains the case today, some controversy at their doing so, we must keep this in perspective. Just as siblings in a family are forever finding ways to be irritated at each other, members of the Christian Church family do the same. Yet this teaching, and specifically the technical term “assumption,” says nothing more than what we profess each Sunday during the Nicene Creed—that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. We could substitute the word “assumption” for “resurrection” without changing any of the meaning.

In the Church of Constantinople, that is the churches of Eastern Orthodox tradition in communion with the Bishop of Constantinople, this day is celebrated as the “Dormition of Mary,” That term, “dormition,” is likewise a technical term that refers to the understanding that upon teaching the end of her earthly life, Mary “fall asleep” in God. Of course we see immediately the ambiguity, from our human perspective, of this glorious theology, because while we die to our earthly self, we wake to the face of God and life immortal. I suppose, like with assumption, we could substitute the word “dormition” for “resurrection” in our Creed, to profess words to the effect of “We believe in Body will fall asleep in God.” The poetry suffers a bit. But in our prayer and in our knowledge of the Faith, I do encourage you to reflect on the doctrine of the resurrection of the body both as an assumption by God to Himself, and a falling asleep into His loving arms.

Our title for today is “Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” On the surface, it gives no indication about Mary and how her life ended—neither assumption nor dormition. But we need look only at the first sentence of our Collect to see that we likewise are celebrating this day in partnership with the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. Our Collect reads: “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son.” “Taken to yourself” mean to the same as “assumption” and “dormition.” It goes on: “grant that we, who have been redeemed by His blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom.” In other words, we believe that Mary is in heaven, that she was resurrected body and soul to heaven to be in the company of heaven with all the Saints, Angels, and Archangels—and we ask God to give us the same destiny, the same outcome of our lives, lives that begin in earthly form and continue to live in the next life within the Church.

So that is a summary of what this day means. That leaves the question, “What shall we do?” as a consequence.

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” This is what we are to do: rejoice in the Lord, and recognize the gift He has given to us in Christ Jesus. This is the purpose of the Mass within the whole of the pattern of Christian life. We come together after a week of Mission in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our hearts, and what do we do but rejoice greatly in the Lord, exult in our God, and recognize and be again reminded how by the Sacraments of our Baptism and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we are clothed with garments of salvation, and covered with the robe of righteousness. We come together week by week to recognize and again be reminded that God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit does the crying for us in our hearts, but on our own we cannot love God and know Him as our Father. Without the Sacraments, we cannot know God intimately in His boundless love.

In other words, to the question, “What shall we do?” our answer is clear: emulate Mary. Imitate her. Do what she did, because what she did is the way to cooperate with God’s plan for us, a plan which includes bringing us to Himself both in this life as well as eternally in the next. Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Church has sung these words everyday during Evening Prayer for upwards of two millennia because there is no greater example of how to be a disciple than Mary and her glorious Song of Praise, a song itself drenched in Scripture, drenched in the Psalms and drenched in the salvation history of the Children of Israel.

“His mercy in on those who fear him from generation to generation.” The mercy of God through all generations is on those who adore God—those who allow themselves to be in awestruck submission before the majesty of God. This is Mary’s example to us, an example we must imitate by the grace of God. And it is for this reason that she is the Saint of Saints, the Queen of Heaven, and the most important Christian.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.