Assumption of the BVM
The Gospel. St. Luke I. 39.
And Mary arose in those day: and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda: and entered into the house og Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the Babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: and she spake out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the Babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord: And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For my sermon today I have decided to reference the Gospel lesson that was read at Mass yesterday during the celebration of the Assumption of the BVM. You may also recognize the particular verse that I just recited as also being the opening of the canticle that we know as the “Magnificat”. We recite or sing this canticle, attributed by St. Luke to Mary, the Mother of Christ, at every Evensong service. And while the whole of the Magnificat is not included in this particular Gospel selection, I would argue that this is the most important sentence, given the feast that we have so recently celebrated.
According to ancient tradition, the Assumption celebrates the day that Mary departed this earthly life; and, according to that same tradition, she was physically taken up into Heaven. This day is also known as the “Dormition”, or “falling asleep” of the Theotokos, which means basically the same thing. This event is commemorated in both the Eastern and Western Churches; the only real difference being that the East believes that Mary’s earthly body was taken up on the third day after her “death”, while the West leaves open the question as to whether Mary was “assumed” before or after her death.
In either event, all are in agreement on one thing; Mary is undoubtedly in Heaven, next to her Son, where she continuously makes intercession for us. And, of course, that is the most important part of the lesson that we must take away today. But you should know that this intercession takes on more than one form; and here is where you start to think to yourselves, “oh, now Father’s going to get all complicated on us”!
Now, it’s not all that complicated really. You see, we often think of intercession in terms of the dictionary definition; “to interpose or plead on behalf of another person”. And, to be sure, our Blessed Mother does do that for us all. But I submit to you that there is a more subtle form of intercession; and that is achieved by the example that the Theotokos, the “God Bearer” shows to us throughout her life.
We know and have often heard the most obvious illustration of this; “behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy will” (Luke 1V38). And we know that her example of humility, grace and submission to the Will of God is the goal to which we should all aspire. But why and how should this be a goal for us?
Likewise, we recall the miracle at the wedding in Cana where Mary tells the servants of the wedding feast, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (John 2V5). Again, she is setting a goal for us; but what is the underlying significance? And how does this pertain to intercession?
Well, the significance lies in the humanity of Mary herself. More specifically, it lies in the willingness of Mary to offer her humanity, her human self, to be used by the Will of God. To offer every ounce of her human being to be the vessel of human Salvation. To give up any and all earthly aspirations for a “normal” life and family, so that God’s Plan for mankind might be fulfilled. She was chosen by God for this; and in accepting this choosing, Mary makes her first intercession on our behalf.
From that point onward, Mary’s life is a series of intercessions for us. When the infant Christ is in need of nourishment, she of course provides it for him. When he is seemingly left behind as an adolescent in Jerusalem, she seeks him out. When the people at the wedding feast are in need, Mary intervenes; “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it”. At every step the Mother of God does her part to ensure that the mission continues; that the plan proceeds accordingly. At every step, whenever necessary, Mary gets involved to guarantee that the needs of humanity are heard.
And then, of course, we have Mary at the foot of the Cross. She has been there every step of the way. She has heard every word her Son has spoken. She has witnessed every miracle. She has heard the crowds crying out his name. She has heard the accusations and derisions cast at him. She has seen his closest followers betray him. She has seen him beaten and bleeding. And she has seen him die. And she never leaves him.
This is more than just the love of an earthly mother. And yet it is all of that. This is the love of a mother who knows that all of this is necessary if mankind is to be saved. And even though the pain of her Son’s Passion is like a sword piercing through her heart, yet she perseveres; for she knows that by refusing to lose Faith even in the darkest moments, she may show what humanity is capable of, and that humanity is not a lost cause. By refusing to lose her Faith, Mary shows that we are worth saving.
So, what does any of this have to do with the Magnificat? Well, the answer lies in the words themselves; My soul doth magnify the Lord: And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. And it also lies in that subtle definition of the word “intercession”.
Just like the word “intercession”, we tend to identify “magnify” by the dictionary definition; “to make greater in actual size”. But that definition doesn’t fit in this context. After all, how could Mary possibly make God any “greater in actual size” than He already is? No, for our purposes, we must use a more ancient definition for “magnify”; the one that the translators of the King James Bible used, “to extol; to praise”.
Now let’s think about Mary’s declaration again, using this definition. And remember that at this point, Mary has already given her mind and body to God; “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word”. She has already offered to God every earthly part of herself on behalf of all mankind. But now, she offers that last part of herself, that eternal part of herself, to the truly one and only pure and holy purpose.
Whereas most all of us have as our motivation for our Faith the salvation of our own souls, Mary has given her soul to the eternal praise of God. Whereas we give thanks to God for the Sacrifice of His Son, Mary rejoices that she has been allowed to have a role in the Salvation of man. Whereas we pray that God will have mercy on us, Mary commits herself, mind, body and soul, to her eternal role as the mother of all humanity in offering praise to the Father and rejoicing on our behalf.
Now I cannot teach you anything authoritatively about the death, or “falling asleep” of the Blessed Virgin. I cannot preach about her Assumption as a matter of Faith because, as the late Canon Steinman Stephens used to say, “even though I believe it, it ain’t in the Bible”. And so the belief that Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven must remain a matter of pious belief, and not a requirement of the Catholic Faith. But this does not mean that we cannot use the ancient tradition of her Assumption as yet another example of her intercession for us.
You see, even in her death, Mary’s intercession continues. She dies just as she has lived; in the full Faith of God, rejoicing and extolling His praises. Her soul passes from this life into Heaven where she sits as Queen of the Saints, the “leader”, if you will, of all those whom we call upon to pray for us. And whether you believe the Eastern or Western tradition of the Assumption, the result is the same; that Mary’s body was resurrected, glorified, and taken to it’s Heavenly reward, in a foreshadowing of our own promised resurrection on that last day, when we will also receive our new, glorified bodies.
This then is her last earthly act of intercession. Throughout her life Mary has acted on the behalf of humanity; giving herself entirely to the Will of God and intervening for us when the need arose. She has knelt at the foot of the Cross, representing all of us who are too timid or cowardly to place ourselves there. By refusing to ever waver in her Faith, by giving her soul to the continual praise of God, she offers her humanity to Him on our behalf.
And in her death and Assumption into Heaven, she brings to us a most glorious gift; a gift more accurately described by a newer definition of the word “magnify”; “to make more exciting; intensify; heighten “. By Mary’s intercession, not only are we more completely represented before God, but God is also additionally glorified in our admittedly dim eyes. Because of the whole, complete, total and everlasting intercession of our Blessed Mother, mankind may come one day to realize what she knows; that by continuously extolling and praising God, we will obtain that which is “more exciting, intensified, and heightened”. By her intercession, we are lead toward the path to our Salvation. And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord: And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.