Collect for Feast of The Assumption of the BVM
O GOD, you have taken to yourself the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son.
May we who have been redeemed by his blood share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 61, Vv 10 - 11
Galatians 4, Vv 4 - 7
St Luke 1, Vv 46 - 55
The Revised Common Lectionary, from which we determine our Propers, our readings, Sunday by Sunday, calls today simply, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’. As the church’s most important saint, the Blessed Virgin Mary has a number of days in the calendar dedicated to her. You will be familiar with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is kept on the 25th day of March, sometimes known as Lady Day, and, on the 2nd day of February, the Feast of the Purification, often called Candlemass. Less well known are: The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the 8th of September and the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the 2nd of July, which celebrates Our Lady’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. All of these occasions are Biblically documented and the church has no difficulty in keeping them, year by year. Also in the calendar are two feast days that are, for some Christians, a little controversial. One of these concerns the conception of Mary. The 1929 Scottish Prayer Book calls it simply The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, kept on the 8th of December. Some parts of the church refer to this as the Immaculate Conception, and they argue that, because Mary’s son, who was, of course Jesus Christ, lived a perfect and sinless life, he could only have derived his innate sinlessness from a sinless mother. Hence logic dictates that Mary must have been conceived sinlessly, or as the church calls it, ‘immaculate’. If we are not careful we run into difficulties here because if Mary was born sinless or immaculate, then her mother, Saint Anne, who has her own feast day on the 26th of July, was also conceived sinlessly, and so on, back through the generations. This logic gets a bit out of hand. Suffice it to say that many in the church keep the 8th December as a day of rejoicing for Mary in the middle of an otherwise penitential season of Advent. I should, perhaps, add that Article XV of the Articles of Religion makes it clear that only Christ was born without sin, but, of course, this doctrinal stipulation only applies to members of the Church of England, not necessarily to other Christians.
The other possibly contentious day in the calendar, a day that is also in our Prayer Book, is today, the 15th of August. The Prayer Book calls it The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Others use the title The Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which means exactly the same thing. Other Christians use the old name of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, there is a world of difference between falling asleep, or dying, which is what inevitably happened to Our Lady, as to everybody else, and being assumed bodily into heaven, which is what the Assumptionists believe. There is no record in Holy Scripture of the death of Mary. Tradition has it that, after the resurrection, she went to live in Ephesus with Saint John. You will remember that Jesus commended her care and well-being into that disciple’s hands while he hung on the cross, certainly according to John’s account of the crucifixion. Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, was the home of the cult to the Roman goddess Diana, or Artemis as the Greeks called her. She was the goddess of virginity, childbirth and the relief of disease in women. Was there ever a more significant place for the final home of one who was the Mother of God? This ancient, desert city contains a shrine to Our Lady, built about five miles from the centre, on the top of a hill called Bulbul. It is a quiet place where Mary may have spent the last of her days. Ephesus also contains the Basilica of Saint John, a cruciform building thought to have been constructed over his grave in the fourth century. Thus there are still links between Ephesus and both Mary and John. But, what about the Assumption of Mary?
As I have said, there is no direct Biblical evidence for such an event. However, as I have mentioned before, and will no doubt say again, Christianity is a revealed religion. Everything we know, and everything we are asked to believe, does not necessarily have a Biblical origin. Jesus made this quite clear in some of his final words to his closest disciples; those who would become the first apostles of the church. He said, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’; and later, of the Sprit, ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’. Here Jesus gave no indication that he had taught the disciples and through them his church everything they or it needed to know. It was through the presence of the Holy Spirit of God, who, you will remember did not come until Jesus had ascended back to heaven, who imparted, and still imparts, truth to the church. Just to give you a simple example; the theology concerning the Holy Trinity was not fully revealed to the church until the times of Augustine and Athanasius in the fifth century.
Most of the Christian Church, both the Greek Eastern and Latin Western Churches, believe that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven after her death to be with her Son in his heavenly kingdom. We must remember that bodily assumptions into heaven were not without precedent. In the book called Genesis we may read, ‘Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him’. These words have been thought by many to explain his bodily assumption. Similarly, as we observed a few weeks ago, the same thing happened to Elijah, in the presence of Elisha. We may read, ‘As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven’. If we accept the accounts of Saint Mark, and Saint Luke, in both his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, then Jesus was also taken up bodily into heaven.
Some scholars have used words from Saint John to justify the church’s teaching on Mary’s assumption. According to Saint John, Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, ‘if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’. These scholars believe that Mary is the pledge of the bodily fulfilment of that promise. I should perhaps add that a Surah in the Qu’ran, called ‘The Night Journey’, describes the corporeal ascent of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven. This is part of official Islamic teaching. Although Epiphanius of Salamis made it clear that no one knew of the eventual fate of Mary, apocryphal accounts of her bodily assumption into heaven have been in circulation since as early as the fourth century.
Does any of this matter to us? If we were members of the Roman Catholic Church then we would be required to believe in the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary because it is a dogma of that church. This doctrine was dogmatically and infallibly defined by Pope Pius XII as recently as All Saints’ Day, 1950, in his Apostolic Constitution entitled Munificentissimus Deus. As I have said, members of other churches simply believe in and accept this event, or, alternatively, they take the view that there is no Biblical authority for it and ignore it. Whichever view we take, it is important for us to remember that Mary is our most important saint and that the company of the saints, those countless numbers who have gone before us in the faith, are to be remembered and reverenced. In the Apostles’ Creed we state that we believe in the Communion of Saints. In every Eucharistic service we affirm that we laud and magnify the glorious Name with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Mary is most certainly included in both of these.
As I said earlier, there are many days in the calendar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I counted no fewer than fifteen in my missal. Our remembrance of and dedication to the Blessed Virgin is, and always has been, part of the church’s teaching and tradition. But we must be careful not to confuse Mariolatry with Mariology. Nowhere, in any church, of East or West, is there, or has there ever been, any suggestion that Mary should be worshipped. Christian worship is reserved for God alone; God in all parts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. Mary is not, as some seem to suggest that the church believes, the fourth person of that Trinity. Many believe that Mary sits at the side of her resurrected, ascended and glorified Son. She accepts the petitions of those who pray to her and passes those prayers, with her own, on to the Godhead. As part of their normal daily lives many Christians pray to various saints. Who has not asked for the help of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, or Saint Christopher for a safe arrival at the end of a journey? There is a wonderful prayer to Mary called The Angelus, which, up to the sixteenth century, was traditionally said or sung in every church three times a day. Today, in many churches it is included at the end of the Eucharist each Sunday. Despite being thought by many to be overtly Catholic (that’s Catholic with a capital ‘C’), it is supremely Biblical in its content and construction. It begins with the words, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’, taken from Luke 1: 28. It continues, ‘blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’, from Luke 1: 42. It then petitions, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death’. The prayer ends, ‘Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ’. The church uses other prayers to Mary, including Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) and Regina Cœli (Queen of Heaven), but we haven’t time to explore those this morning. I like to believe that Jesus would have wanted to have his beloved mother bodily by his side in his kingdom; the mother who had suffered so many things because of him; the mother with whom he didn’t always appear to see eye-to-eye during his earthly ministry. As we have observed, there are a number of Biblical precedents for bodily assumption. Why not for Mary? Whether she sits at her Son’s side in corporeal form or in spirit form, she surely has pride of place among the saints in heaven. As such the church on earth acknowledges her as the most important saint. Let us celebrate her on this, one of her special days. Let us remember her reply to the Archangel Gabriel, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’. Let us pray that, when we are called upon by God, we may have the same fortitude and obedience to him that was shown by Mary, Blessed Virgin and Queen of Heaven.
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