Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Assumption of Our Lady August 15th

Today we celebrate the taking of Our Lady, Body and Soul into the glory of heaven. It is an ancient feast, and an ancient belief, but it was only officially defined by the Church in 1950.
Perhaps you've never really thought much about the meaning behind this feast, but for some people the Assumption is a problem. It is not described - at least not directly - in Scripture itself. For some, outside the catholic church, it seems that we are making Mary into a sort of divine figure. They say we are claiming that Mary did not die. They say we are giving Mary honour which is due only to Christ.
Most of these points are easy to dismiss. To honour a human being, the greatest human being ever, is not to take away from the glory of God. On the contrary, it is to praise him even more for the wonders he performs through his creation. As Mary herself says "All generations will call me blessed, for the almighty has done great things for me". When we honour Mary, we praise God for the great things he has done.
But there is another reason why people might feel uneasy about the Assumption. Not because it expresses the glory of God seen in a human being, but because it seems to say something a little odd. This belief, this feast, says that there is no body of Mary on earth, no bones, no relics, no dust and ashes, but that she was taken up into heaven, whole and entire - that is what 'assumed' means.
Some might say 'why?' After all, don't most people believe that when we die our soul goes to dwell with God in heaven? Isn't our soul, our immortal soul, who we really are? our essence, our personality, our memory and identity? Surely, we have no need of a body in heaven?
This popular belief, that when we die our soul goes to heaven is inadequate for two reasons.
Firstly, because when we die our soul does not go to heaven -- it goes to judgement! This is why we pray for the dead. This is why we try to lead a good life. This is why we say 'pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death'. We trust in God's great love and forgiveness - but we should never rely on our own goodness. We pray that purified by God, our soul may indeed enter heaven to dwell with him.
And secondly this popular belief is wrong because heaven is not the end of the story, or, to put it rather better, our soul is not our essence, our full identity, or whatever we wish to call it. As Christians we do not believe in immortality, certainly not in reincarnation, but we believe in Resurrection - that at the end of time, after the last judgment, soul and body are reunited to live not just in heaven, but in a new heaven and a new earth. God restores his creation and we share in it through our recreated, transformed bodies. This is what Resurrection means - the rising of the body to new life in a new creation.
We might like to think that our bodies are only our temporary dwelling places, somewhere we must dwell just for a while. We might even like the idea that one day we will cast off this ugly and suffering flesh to be truly free. But that is not Christianity. We believe not in a spiritual Lord only, but a risen Lord. We believe that this world is not a temporary dwelling place, but the Lord's creation. We look forward to a new heaven and new earth, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
That is why this world, the way in which we treat it, the way in which we behave in it, is so important. It is not just the stuff which will decay, as if it can be burnt away to be no more. It is the material of the new creation.
And Mary shares in this new creation. Just as she gave from her flesh in the incarnation of the Son, so her flesh shares in his risen flesh. This is a wonderful feast, a glorious doctrine, an awesome truth.

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