July 25, 2005

Mary: Hope in our Darkness

On 15 August we will celebrate our country’s patronal feast, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we will commemorate the 60th anniversary of VJ day, the end of World War II. The recent joint statement from Anglican and Catholic scholars Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ acknowledges that Mary is a ‘sign of hope for all humanity’(#56).

As Catholics our experience of God and our spirituality must emerge from our concrete reality and then return to that reality to enliven and nourish it. So what does the Assumption have to say to this year’s 60th anniversary of the end of WWII? How can Mary be a sign of hope of for us here today?

The Assumption is one of four dogmas concerning Mary. It is a belief that developed after the period of the New Testament; hence we can't find it in the Gospels. This has been a stumbling block for Anglican and Catholic unity. However, as the joint statement (#56) points out, Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind to heaven at the end of his life (2 Kings 2:11).Because of this passage and others which testify to faithful disciples being drawn into God’s presence, it is reasonable to conclude the same about Mary from these ‘hints’ and ‘partial analogies’.

Here then is a sign of hope in the darkness of Anglican-Catholic dialogue

However, when the early Christians puzzled over Mary’s death, they weren’t concerned with Anglican-Catholic dialogue. They were concerned that because she was the Mother of Jesus, God would not have let her die in the same way as the rest of us. Somehow it did not seem right to them that Mary's body should suffer any form of decay after death. It seemed that linear, conventional thinking had reached its limits and that it was time to try out some right brain imaginative, intuitive, more symbolic answers. So as they prayed and reflected on Mary's role in the life of Jesus and in their own lives, celebrated their liturgies and discussed their faith, the belief that Mary was taken to heaven body and soul when she died seemed a creative way to honour her special status: Mary's body could avoid the physical disintegration to which the rest of us are subjected by its being reunited with her immortal soul immediately after her death. So this is the belief that is part of our Catholic tradition today—Mary was taken to heaven body and soul.

Here then was a sign of hope in the darkness of doctrinal impasse

When Catholics and Muslims take part in interfaith dialogue, teaching about Mary is seen as something that unites us. Muslims, too, refer to her as ‘Our Lady.’ Venerated as a pure and holy saint in the Islamic world, Mary is mentioned over 30 times in the Koran.

Here then is a sign of hope in the darkness of inter-religious ignorance

Five years after VJ Day, in 1950, Pope Pius XII defined Mary’s Assumption as a dogma of our faith. Why? One of the reasons was that the 20th century had already experienced such massive destruction of human life, including the genocide of the Armenian people, the Jewish Holocaust, the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the result was a widespread feeling of meaninglessness, futility and emptiness—indeed a ‘dark night of the world’. So in defining the dogma of the Assumption, the pope was trying to say something positive and hopeful about the human body and to restore dignity to it. The feast affirms the goodness of material reality (our bodies) and asserts that ultimately the whole person will be saved. What happened to Mary is what will eventually happen to us.

Here then was a sign of hope in the darkness of meaninglessness

Considering the horrendous events of the past few months can make us feel helpless, confused, guilty and almost paralysed by the sheer magnitude of suffering. There seems to be very little political will to effect radical, lasting and meaningful change. God’s demands for conversion, justice, love, compassion and healing are globally in the too hard basket. Those with power have allowed the social, political and economic forces of our time to charge ahead unchecked resulting in the extreme suffering and death of millions. Forms of oppression, violence and exploitation are everywhere, beginning in our own homes, workplaces, environment and schools and on our sports fields. The dignity and goodness of the human body, so gloriously affirmed by the celebration of the Assumption, seem to be totally ignored. There are of course glimmers of hope when the powerful are held to account, when people do unite in positive action on behalf of others, when courageous individuals do take a stand against injustice of any kind.

Here then are signs of hope in the darkness of global greed

For Catholics there is another reason for hope. The Gospel reading for the Assumption is Luke’s story of Elizabeth’s visit to Mary and the latter’s Magnificat (Luke1: 39-56). It is a significant and hopeful story for all New Zealanders and especially for women because two women are centre stage— a place women rarely occupy in Scripture in contrast to the political and social reality of our country. (Unfortunately we hear the story proclaimed only three times throughout the entire year and never on a Sunday.) Someone said, ‘Mary’s Magnificat reveals that Mary is not only full of grace but full of political opinions.’

So what is the Magnificat? It’s Mary’s great song of praise and hope, a ‘toast to our God’:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant. Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.

Holy is his name, and his faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him. He has used the power of his arm, he has routed the arrogant of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly. He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty. He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his faithful love —according to the promise he made to our ancestors—of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary’s prophetic proclamation is significant as the longest speech given to any woman in the entire Bible. (Luke silences most of the other women in his Gospel but not Elizabeth and Mary.) The two parts of the Magnificat may be described as being about love of God and love of neighbour, or spirituality and social justice, or contemplation and action. Whichever way we decide to approach it we immediately get caught up in Mary’s cry of joy. Mary the poor, struggling Galilean peasant woman, has been chosen by God.

Here then is hope in the darkness of nothingness

In the second part Mary sings passionately of God’s mercy to oppressed people, God’s victory over the powerful. The reality of first century Palestinian Jewish society called out for this kind of salvation. The song is full of powerful verbs. The approach of the Reign of God will mean the reversal of so much: the hungry will be fed, the lowly exalted and the powerful toppled. Mary herself, the teenager pregnant with the Messiah, embodies the reversal she proclaims.

Here then is hope in the darkness of oppression

VJ Day marking the end of WW II, is one of the days in NZ on which our flag is hoisted on government buildings. Perhaps seeing it on Assumption day will trigger an imaginative stretch for us, maybe spark some unconventional answers for our troubled world, and help us believe in new possibilities for peace and justice. Mary, hope in our darkness. Pray for us.

Elizabeth Julian rsm

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