Thursday 15 August 2019: The Blessed Virgin Mary
The Assumption as an act of solidarity with the poor
Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56
By Brian McMahon
A Catholic priest in the diocese of Westminster, serving at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Stevenage
Context: a working-class parish of nearly eight hundred members, comprising of several ethnic minorities
Aim: to communicate that the Blessed Virgin Mary stands with us in our poverty from her vantage point in heaven
County Mayo is a really beautiful part of Ireland. You may have heard of a small town in that county by the name of Knock? It is the location of the main Marian shrine in Ireland. Pilgrims flock there every year looking for a sense of connection with something over and above themselves and this crazy world we live in. I guess you could call it transcendence. There is something of the wonder of the Garden of Eden to be experienced at Knock Shrine. I was privileged to celebrate Mass in the Apparition Chapel at Knock Shrine in the summer of last year, where Pope Francis prayed this year during his pastoral visit to Ireland. The origins of the shrine are rooted in August 1879 when, at 8pm fifteen people from the village, witnessed an Apparition of Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, a Lamb and cross on an altar at the gable wall of the Parish Church. Unique amongst Marian apparitions no verbal message was given. However, we should take note of the history of the period to deduce what message may have in fact been given by Our Lady, though no words were spoken.
The year 1879 was the height of the Great Famine in Ireland. Over a million Irish people starved to death and a greater number left the island for America or Australia. The remaining population suffered greatly at the hands of absent landlords, who unhesitatingly evicted Irish people from their small cottages because of non-payment of rent. Against this background the apparition occurred. Of note during the apparition was the demeanour of Our Lady, as described by several witnesses. In common with St Joseph and St John, Our Lady seemed to be composed of pure light as there was no physical aspect to be experienced when some tried to touch her. Her hands were raised in prayer and her head and eyes focused upwards, to heaven presumably. This apparition is illustrative of what we celebrate in our churches today, that is, the physical elevation of her sinless soul and incorrupt body into Heaven, at the end of her earthly life, commonly known as the Assumption.
Some Christians may say, ‘whoa, hang on! Where does it say that in the Bible?’ Well of course as Bible reading Catholics, we know it does not do so explicitly. However, we believe in a twin and complementary approach to Revelation, that is, the interplay and coherence between Scripture and Tradition, as interpreted by in the Apostolic Constitution, (MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS, The Most Bountiful God). This was issued by Pope Pius XII in 1950, in which he defined the doctrine of the Assumption. Pope Pius XII was not introducing a novelty but acknowledging what the Church has since its earliest times always acknowledged. Pope Pius XII wrote that, ‘it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective.’
At this point we turn sharply back to that rain sodden field in Knock. What we see there is the silent Mother of God standing in complete solidarity with a poor and disadvantaged people, exercising God’s preferential option for the poor, long before that phrase was coined. Her demeanour is focused completely in prayer on the Father, as if to say to the witnesses in that heavenly apparition, that whatever you are going through now is nothing compared to what you will experience when every tear is wiped away and that this touch of heaven that is now revealed to you, stands with you in your deprivation, is fully realised at the end of time. Heaven is with you. Just keep your gaze on the Father no matter what happens.
The Assumption is, as Pope Pius XII wrote, a strengthening factor in our belief in the resurrection, making it take effect in our lives through the support and care of a celestial mother who knows and understands the details of our suffering, whilst she stands in solidarity with us from the place where she has gone to before us. Indeed, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it at his General Audience in August 2016; ‘By contemplating Mary in heavenly glory, we understand that the earth is not the definitive homeland for us either, and that if we live with our gaze fixed on eternal goods we will one day share in this same glory and the earth will become more beautiful.’ The Assumption is an intimation of what waits for us and what we already we experience in the Eucharist.
Sunday 18 August 2019
Trinity 9, Twentieth in Ordinary time, Proper 15
We are not alone
By Graham Pearcey
Methodist Local Preacher, and a Trustee of The College of Preachers
Context: non-Eucharistic service in a suburban chapel with a congregation of 30 to 40 adults
Aim: to examine the role that the saints play in ‘the race that is set before us’
Compared to other Christian traditions, are we over-reliant on words in our worship? Imagine if we decided to follow the example of some other denominations, placing pictures or statuettes of saints within our church buildings. Who should we pick? Modern heroes like Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela? In any case, surely not a prostitute, drunkard or murderer?
Well, interestingly, today we heard the writer to the Hebrews, in compiling a catalogue of faith heroes, include a prostitute: Rahab. Earlier in the same chapter the writer had listed Noah, who got drunk; and Moses, who slayed a man in a fight!
These are Old Testament characters, of course, but New Testament heroes are equally flawed. James and John squabbled over the best seats in the kingdom; Peter denied his Lord; Thomas doubted. Which is somewhat reassuring in ‘the race that is set before us’: if they could keep the faith and reach the finishing line, there’s hope for me yet!
A five-year-old boy sat alongside his dad on an aeroplane. They’d taken this flight because the lad’s mother, the man’s wife, was the pilot; and this was her first flight as captain. Needless to say, when the boy excitedly shared this information with passengers around him, some weren’t quite as ecstatic as he was! But the ‘plane moved off on time, taxied along the runway, took off perfectly and climbed gently skyward; and the boy squealed, ‘Way to go, Mum!’ Do saints do for us what this lad did for his mother: cheer us on without getting directly involved? Or can they do more?
Derek Redmond was a British athlete who went to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona with high hopes of a medal in the 400 metres. Come the day, the semi-final was going very well, the finishing line within sight, when disaster struck: Derek tore his hamstring and fell to the ground. Derek’s father, watching from the crowd, forced his way past stewards onto the running track, took his son’s arm, and helped him limp to the finishing line. Derek won no prize that day, but he did reach the finish. Of course, the father got in trouble for what he did; but are saints like that?
One day a Catholic was defending the, to us questionable, practice of ‘praying to’ saints. He asked me, ‘If you were facing a particularly tough challenge, would you consider requesting prayers from a Christian friend?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied. Then he said, ‘Do you believe in life after death for people of faith?’ Again, I had to say, ‘Of course.’ And finally, he asked, would I consider requesting prayers from a Christian friend after he or she had died? It was checkmate! The Catholic explained, ‘We don’t pray to saints. We ask them to intercede for us.’ So, faith heroes of the past can directly help us on our Christian pilgrimage. But can they do more still?
I draw your attention to Orthodox churches, that typically don’t have steeples or towers, but domes. And painted on the inside of the dome is ‘the cloud of witnesses’, a reminder that the saintly community don’t only inspire and encourage us but invite us to raise our sights heavenwards and look to Jesus. Today’s Scripture referred to this ‘cloud’ of witnesses – the literal meaning of the Greek word ‘nephos.’ Such imagery, seemingly strange to us, would have been clear to the first readers. In Jewish thought clouds symbolise God’s glory. The Israelites in the wilderness were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day. Moses disappeared into a thick cloud when he received the Law. The disciples were overshadowed by one at Jesus’ transfiguration. And a cloud took Jesus out of their sight at his ascension. The cloud of witnesses give glory to God and encourage us to look to Jesus.
Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote, ‘I am not asking you now to think of [Jesus], or to form numerous conceptions of him, or to make long and subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking you only to look at him.’ In particular, Teresa encouraged people to visualise Jesus’ crucified body. Marathon runners are often advised, upon hitting the so-called ‘wall’ at around 20 miles, to try and visualise the objects ahead, and themselves successfully negotiating them. Well, when we’re hitting the ‘wall’ on our Christian journey (as, evidently, the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews were), the saints invite us to ‘Look to Jesus ... who ... endured the cross.’
Jesus performs many functions in our Christian ‘race’: he’s our starting pistol; he lines our route; he’s alongside us aiding our steps; he’s ahead of us showing the way; and he’s the finishing line! We worship a crucified Christ, ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’
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