Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Assumption of Our Lady - Canon Robin Ward

This sermon was preached by the Principal at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham for the feast of the Assumption this year:

I have bad news for the shrine of our Lady of Walsingham. It would seem that our pilgrimage to this holy place is soon to be superseded, and that England’s Nazareth will once more sink into torpor and obscurity. Why so? Will a new tyrant arise to overthrow the cult? Will the demise of the Church of England make it redundant? Will the departure of Fathers North and Barnes in fact require a lengthy convalescence from the effects of the ministry of the bouncy castle? No. The real threat to our shrine, according to the learned and erudite Professor Haldane of St Andrew’s University is space travel. Once we get rockets which are big enough and speedy enough we will have no need to mess about coming on pilgrimage to Marian shrines, stopping for fish and chips in Fakenham and so forth, because we will be able to go and see Mary herself in person. After all, if she has been assumed body and soul into heaven, moved that is from one place to another in an extraordinary way, but still in a way which preserves the essential continuity of her existence, then really the only difficulty (though that a rather daunting one from a strictly practical point of view) is knowing where to look for her.

The Christian message of salvation would in many ways be much easier to explain if we did away with the resurrection of the body. Survival after death, future happiness and sufficient continuity with this life to assure recognition of loved ones: these are the staple expectations of the English which all the parish clergy recognize from countless funeral visits and insipid crematorium tributes. The Bishop of Durham is quite right to point out how un-Christian these expectations are, even if by doing so he chooses to identify himself with the error of Pope John XXII, denying that the blessed enjoy the beatific vision before the Last Judgement. But he is right to suspect the spiritualizing as old as Plato and as persistent as Gnosticism, whereby the body is explained away: no need for any of those embarrassing questions about the whereabouts of heaven or indeed the fierceness of the fires of hell, if we let go of the tangible and project salvation into a purely spiritual and therefore conveniently inconceivable realm.

This is not the faith of the Catholic Church. The great monastic theologian Anscar Vonier wrote: The resurrection of our bodies is the acid test of our orthodoxy; no man is truly Christian in his intellect unless he firmly believes that in the world to come mankind will be, not a multitude of ghosts, however glorious, but a race of distinct personalities, composed of body and soul as here on earth. My soul is not me: without my body I may possess by God’s good grace the sight of His face which is the reward of the blessed and the Beatific Vision promised the saints, and possess it in that degree of intensity which reflects the measure of grace to which I have attained in this life; but I will not possess it to the fullest extent until I enjoy it having received back my body in the resurrection. Dante expresses this yearning of the blessed thus: The lustre which already swathes us round/Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long/ Day after day now moulders underground.

The scriptures could not be more explicit about the bodily character of the glory which is promised to the blessed in the resurrection life: on the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus is glorified with Moses and Elijah, both of whom have been assumed bodily into heaven at the end of their earthly lives; at the very moment that the sacrifice of the Cross is consummated by the death of the Lord, the first-fruits of the redemption are made known by the rising of the saints in Jerusalem, a resurrection not made known to witnesses until after his own. And despite Professor Haldane and his rockets, the notion of heaven as a place (which naturally follows when you need to find space for a body) is not strange to theology: S. Thomas inherits from the monastic fathers of the Church the term Empyrean to mean heaven conceived in this way. He argues that because God intended the material universe to possess a two-fold glory, both spiritual and bodily, he begins the creation with the perfect spiritual beatitude of the angels, and the perfect bodily glory of the Empyrean, luminous, unchanging and beyond our observation because it is subject to neither motion nor sight. It is to this place that the Lord ascends to prepare the mansions of the blessed in the Father’s house, and in this place that the Mother of God perpetuates the particular ministry entrusted her in consequence of the singular privilege of her Assumption body and soul into glory.

For Our Lady’s Assumption is not simply an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead which God has decreed for all at the final Judgement. Her Assumption is a consequence of her particular dignity as the Mother of God. Human death comprises of three aspects: one that is natural, the dissolution of material substance in that inevitable decomposition of contraries which is the lot of created things; one that is unnatural, the separation of the soul which possesses immortality from the body which does not; and one which is punitive, the consequence of the Fall.

Our Lady although conceived without Original Sin and so exempt by God’s grace from the penal aspect of human death, was not exempt from the natural end of human life, nor the sundering of soul from body which is the dissolution of the human person. She is not in this way superior to her divine Son, who for our sake willingly submitted Himself to a redeeming death on the Cross. But her death is truly as the Christians of the East call it a Dormition: a passing over into Eternal Life which is untouched by the traumatic separation of body and soul which the children of Adam are sentenced to bear, and which exemplifies the dignity of her divine and virginal Motherhood by which she truly co-operated in the work of our Redemption.

When the scriptures talk to us about the resurrection life they draw attention in a rather curious way to clothing: Elijah, as he goes up to heaven in his fiery chariot, lets fall his cloak as a commission to Elisha; the Lord’s garments are transfigured with Him and shine white as light upon the mount of Tabor; the woman of Revelation appears in heaven clothed with the sun. The Pauline teaching for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ seems to take on a tangible form. This clothing is the outward sign of that inward infusion of spiritual insight which enables the created mind to see God and which the theologians call the Light of Glory. For Mary our Mother, the people of God have found profound comfort in the image of her protecting veil, which is at once the token of her bodily glory, the Queen clothed in gold of Ophir, and the pledge of her continuing intercession for all her devout children, whom her divine Son wills should come to salvation through the mediation of her Immaculate Heart. May our blessed Lady assumed into heaven pray for us in this place dedicated to her name and patronage, and for all who come seeking her intercession in trouble and in joy, that we may come at last to the heavenly kingdom of her Son, and enjoy for ever with her the vision of God in the resurrection life.