In August, the Episcopal Church celebrates the feast of St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. In belated honor of those feast days celebrating Mary, the model disciple, my blog is adapted from a homily I wrote many years ago for the feast of the Assumption, based on the following readings from the Bible: Revelation 11:19a, 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; and Luke 1:39-56.
We hear the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth two thousand years after the fact. We know the end of the story, that Mary’s acceptance of God’s mission for her enabled Jesus to be born, to die and rise again, bringing salvation to all humankind. To Mary the young girl, hurrying northward to her cousin’s home, the situation was not so clear. She has said, “Yes” to God, but what has this brought her so far? She is an unwed mother and therefore living in a state of shame among her people. Her fiancé could refuse to marry her. She could be stoned to death. If she looks into the future, she has no idea what life will bring her. We know what she has to look forward to. When she and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to be presented at the temple, Simeon tells her bluntly: “Look, he is for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul, too.” The “pay-off” of being crowned Queen of Heaven is a long way away and completely unforeseen. And yet, at Elizabeth’s house Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Laurie was hardly more than a toddler when she was diagnosed with cancer. For the next three years Laurie and her family battled for her life. Her mother, father, and three younger sisters gave over all of their time and family life toward her healing. Their church family supported the family, gathering for long prayer vigils while Laurie was in surgery, bringing meals to the house, bringing sandwiches, toys, and playmates to her hospital bedside to lighten her day and relieve her mother and father, and staying with her younger sisters for days at a time so that her parents could be at the hospital constantly during the worst times. All of this effort was crucial; it cost her parents, family and friends dearly, and yet the battle remained Laurie’s. In an essential way, Laurie faced her demons alone.
Today, Laurie is 10 years old. Her doctors have declared her to be free of cancer. The years of chemotherapy that healed her have also damaged her kidneys. She has 25% function in one kidney; the other kidney doesn’t work at all. Next year, or maybe the next, she may need a kidney transplant. Meanwhile, her daily life includes self-administered medications and blood tests. She has to pay close attention to what she eats and her weight is a constant concern.
One Thursday evening in Advent, Laurie was working in the atrium, the place of religious education for children in Laurie’s church. Since she was a very young child, Laurie has come here to learn of the Good Shepherd’s love for her. This evening, Laurie and another girl have volunteered to lead communal prayer for the other children and catechists, as is done at the end of every session in the atrium. One of the prayers printed in the communal prayer booklet is the Magnificat. Laurie, usually reticent about volunteering, asks, “Can I read this for communal prayer?” The bell rings and everyone gathers for communal prayer. There is a gospel reading, prayers of the faithful, and then Laurie reads in a clear voice: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Luke 1:46-49
Mary’s prayer, called the Magnificat, seems to state the obvious: of course her soul proclaimed the greatness of the Lord; she gave birth to Jesus. We all know that. We all know that Mary was called to greatness, accepted the call, and received her reward in heaven. Our tradition tells us that she was assumed into heaven in her earthly body. If Christ was the first fruits of those to be raised from the dead, then we might say that Mary was the second fruits: according to Roman Catholic tradition, Mary was the first fully human being to be resurrected in her human body. In that sense, she was the first human being to experience the parousia, the promised heavenly life. But in between her “Yes” to God and her assumption into heaven, Mary endured a life filled with uncertainty. There were beautiful, miraculous moments, as well as moments of horrible dread and suffering. What was Mary’s attitude through all of this?
We can’t see into Mary’s heart, any more than we could see into Laurie’s. But the gospel reading gives us a clue: “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.” There is a lot of power in that trust. It is the same trust that Mary recalls in her prayer, the trust that enabled Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. With her whole being, Mary believed that God keeps his promises. And what has God promised? It must be a very great promise to enable ordinary people to undergo extraordinary acts of courage and faith.
The second reading, from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, tells us that God has promised to free all of us from death. God promises that Jesus will destroy every power that is not of God: death and all forms of evil. Jesus’ free gift of love is God’s divine recompense for our sins. Death came through a man but God’s mercy is such that God does not demand recompense of humanity; instead, God allows Jesus to take the entire burden of our sins upon himself so that “in Christ all will come to life again.”
New life, free of the power of evil and death, came through Jesus, the one who was both God and man. Yet the reading from Revelation tells us that this man was born of a woman. This vision of Mary in Revelations recalls Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to a poor Mexican peasant “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars” — and with the dark beauty of a peasant woman. This triumphant Mary is the bridge between fallen humanity and the new life of humanity in Christ. The special place God has prepared for her in the desert is reminiscent of Eden. She faces down evil in the form of a dragon to give birth to the One who will shepherd all nations. As soon as she has accomplished this heroic birth, a loud voice in heaven proclaims the coming of the New Age: “now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One.” The implication is profound: that parousia does not only await the Second Coming, but began with the birth of Christ.
God asked a lot of Abraham and of Mary, and God asks a lot of us as baptized people. Life has asked a lot of Laurie; maybe too much. It is not the absence of challenges but how we meet life’s challenges that define us as followers of Christ. We who wish to help God bring the kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” must follow God into places we would rather not go, places of uncertainty and evil. At the same time, if parousia began with the birth of Christ, that reality, too, must be present here in our time. Like the woman who gave birth in Revelations, Laurie has faced down death. Where is the place that God has prepared for her, the place of escape from evil? With so many difficulties in her life, difficulties completely unasked-for and undeserved, how can Laurie yet know that her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord? Is there a way that Laurie, and we, can taste the parousia, the time when God will be all in all, even as we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death?” (Ps.23)
Laurie is an intelligent, strong girl. She has a very loving, devoted family and supportive church community. But even these are not enough to sustain Laurie in her battle with death and evil; she needs something more. Each of us needs something within to sustain us in the battle with sin and death that, aware or not, we each face every day.
What that “something” might be is hinted at when Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.” What did Mary do when faced with great evil and death? She lived daily with fear and uncertainty, and yet endured. Like the woman in Revelations, she faced down evil and gave birth to the One who would shepherd all nations with an iron rod. It must have taken tremendous faith and courage. But Mary did not try to do more than God asked of her. She gave birth in the presence of the dragon, but she did not try to fight the dragon. When her role was completed, she escaped to the safe place that God had prepared for her.
We can learn from Mary’s example. God has a role for each of us, a unique work that only we can fulfill. If we follow the example of Mary and Abraham and trust in God’s promises, then we will be able to complete that work in the face of evil and death. But God does not ask us to defeat evil and death. God asks only that we do our work, and then go to that special place of protection that God has prepared for each of us. Where is the place we each can escape to, to retreat from the hard work of bringing God’s kingdom on earth, and be refreshed?
In Baptism we receive new life in Christ. In this life lies a place of refuge that cannot be reached by the evil one. That place where we are united with the One who shepherds us is a safe place that can sustain us through the worst of times, until that great time when all the enemies of humanity are vanquished.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us how we can find the place of refuge that God has prepared for us. He says, “Go into your room, close the door and pray to your heavenly Father.” Prayer is one place where we can experience refuge in Christ. Jesus also knew that we human beings would need something tangible to sustain us in our work until he returns. He gave us the Eucharist as a way to live in the reality of his presence so that, at least in that one moment, as a community, we can taste, touch and see our new life in Christ. Every time we come to the table we get a taste of the parousia and we strengthen that sustaining presence of Christ within us. From the fonts of Baptism, prayer and Eucharist, our lives can proclaim the greatness of the Lord.
Postscript: Laurie is now a young woman. She graduated from college, has a demanding career and a full life.