Assumption of the BVM
Assumption, 15th August, 2018
Alae Taule'alo, Chaplain at RMIT, assisting at St Peter's
It seems appropriate that my homily should be inspired by aspects of my ministry at RMIT.
Two recent sources of inspiration come to mind: a conversation a couple of weeks ago with my colleague Imam Riad Galil, who is the Muslim chaplain at RMIT, and the NAIDOC week march at the end of June with its evocative slogan "Because of her, we can".
Initially, I was a bit stumped at the prospect of a homily on the Assumption and what direction it would take. I could focus on the Assumption from an historical perspective in terms of how the dogma developed through Tradition finally to be declared infallible (i.e. necessary for belief) in the nineteenth century by Pope Pius XII.
Alternatively, I could talk about how the Assumption pre-figures our bodily resurrection at the end of times, and how Mary's singular privilege of bodily resurrection is a powerful prefiguration of the resurrection that all Christians expect in Christ.
And both of these discussions are interesting, useful and help us contextualise the Assumption, which can seem quite mystical, supernatural and removed from the context of our lives.
But to return to my ministry at RMIT, the path to this homily was more circuitous. By talking with Riad I gained a better understanding of how Mary's importance in the life of Jesus-—and consequently of the church-—is understood by different faiths and how her physical body is not incidental to the story of the Assumption but actually central to it.
Riad not only talked about the reverence with which Mary is held is Islam, he also accepted the notion of the Assumption, or at least the incorruptibility of Mary's body after death, as a real, physical embodiment of God's favour.
Frankly, I'd expected this to be a bit more of a sticking point, particularly when talking across the divide of faith. After all, even among some Christians, the idea of Mary's bodily Assumption into Paradise can test belief. Whether we believe Mary physically died before she was assumed into Paradise—and the dogmatic pronouncements in the Latin church are deliberately ambiguous in this regard—the idea that Mary is carried upwards to heaven at the end of her earthly life affronts our sense of what's possible. It's an anathema to our cultural conditioning, which is grounded in rationalism and scientific discourse.
Even affirming the bodily Resurrection of Christ can, at times, be a challenge in our culture. Arguing that Mary was similarly favoured, albeit as a human being, is theological ground where wise men never tread.
But in Islam, as Riad reminded me, Prophets and friends of God are believed to be saved from corruption of the body after death. God's preservation of the physical bodies of his anointed is a literal embodiment of his favour. By preserving the bodies of his favoured ones from decay, God gives a sign to the nations that his favoured ones are set apart in holiness.
I reflected that we can tend, in some Christian circles, to spiritualise and rationalise the physical away. But in Christianity, as in Islam the body is not incidental, it is central. Christ himself is God in a body—eternity contained in something transient. Through the body of Mary Christ was brought into the world. Jesus was able to live in a body while transcending its limitations. God likewise cherishes the body that bore Christ.
So ironically, it was through discussions with an Imam that I was reminded that for centuries Christians and Muslims have held in common the notion that the body is itself a gift from the Almighty and that incorruptibility, that is a body that does not decay after death, is an enduring, tangible sign of God's favour. The body of Christ is God made flesh. But our own bodies, fallible and imperfect as they are, can reflect that divinity too.
In this vein, the Assumption is a joyous celebration of Mary's earthly body, and the affirmation that God has expressed his love for Mary by saving it from decay here on earth. Interestingly, for all the differences in dogma and the theological mechanics of it all, both Orthodox and Latin traditions affirm that Mary finishes her earthly life but with a special—and hugely significant—twist that sets her apart.
In raising Mary's body and soul into Paradise God affirms not only Mary's unique historical role in salvation history—a role that sadly none of us can emulate—but also her personal faithfulness, which we are invited to emulate as followers as Jesus. And herein lies the theological life raft for us who are trying to live faithful Christian lives in the here and now.
Mary surrenders to a divine, and often painful journey in service of God while also being fully human and thus frail as we are frail. But her singular faith gives her courage to accept the will of God where older—and arguably wiser—souls might falter. Compare, for instance, her faithfulness at the Annunciation with that of our own patron, St Peter, who pretends not to know Jesus three times during his trial.
There is much to learn from this adolescent girl from an impoverished community whose faith and obedience sustains her in often very difficult circumstances. Today's Gospel, the Magnificat, is itself a extraordinary, prophetic statement of faith for anyone to make, let alone a young woman who is engaged to a man while already carrying a child. Even in the economy of God this is a disruptive and challenging situation for Mary to face.
To return to my second inspiration for this homily, the slogan for this year's NAIDOC Week—"Because of her, we can"—was an affirmation of the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made—and continue to make—to Indigenous communities, families and the nation as a whole.
It's not too much of an extrapolation, I believe, to reinterpret this slogan in reference to the church and the joyful feast we celebrate tonight. Because of Mary, we can.
Were Mary's role in Scripture and Tradition confined solely to giving birth to Jesus Christ she would still have played an essential role in our Salvation, meriting, at the very least, humanity's praise and thanksgiving.
But at the Annunciation, as in the upper room in Acts 1:13 where she takes place alongside the Apostles, Mary continues to reminds us that, with God's grace, we can say “yes" to God's plans even if they seem impossible. Although we can't carry Christ physically as Mary did, she reminds us that by God's grace we can carry him in our thoughts, words and actions.
Mary points to her son's divinity while at the same time showing us a pattern for Christian faith, lived in a human body and with a human mind.
In life she is an example of the most empowering kind. In death, her bodily Assumption is, we hope, a foretaste of the final reunion of body and soul in Paradise that we one day hope will be our lot as those who believe in the crucified and risen one.
Tonight, we dare to hope that Mary's ascended body, vulnerable in its humanity yet blest with God's favour, points the way for our eventual union with God: a union that is both physical and spiritual.
How is it possible, you might ask, for us to live in hope that such an exalted destiny might one day be the lot of all the faithful?
Because of Mary, we can.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.