Sermon for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Assumption) August 15 2018
Reading Luke 1.46-55
In 2016, a fragment of Thomas à Becket’s elbow returned to England. There was much interest in this relic and (as I remember) no real protest, even though one of the tasks of the Reformation had been to banish such things.
The relic instinct is a persistent one, and widely held. Visit the excellent museum at the Methodist New Room in Bristol and you can feel a surge of evangelical voltage as you gaze on John Wesley’s preaching Bible and spectacles, reverently preserved since 1791. At Wesley’s Chapel in London you can see a lock of his hair.
It’s what Eammon Duffy calls this ‘miraculous materiality’ that links us dynamically to a saint, whether official (Becket), unofficial (Wesley) or secular: the son of a colleague in the Cathedral office is the devoted owner of a T-shirt signed by Usain Bolt. And who does not envy him?
Among the relics most prized have been those of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thomas Robertson, a predecessor of mine here as Treasurer, listed in his 1536 inventory some fragments ‘of the sepulcre of our ladye’ and of her shroud – but nothing of her mortal remains. The thumb of Bartholomew the apostle, yes, but nothing of Mary herself, except some of her hair and – even more improbably – her milk.
Now as far as I can tell, nowhere claimed to have any of Mary’s mortal remains; which is interesting because, from about AD500, stories appeared that she had been preserved from death or that her death had been a temporary state. The Eastern church spoke of the ‘falling asleep’ – in Latin the ‘dormition’ – of the Virgin. Others spoke of Mary’s body (rather like Elijah’s) carried to heaven by angels.
When all this could no longer be officially ignored, the Pope condemned it. Devotion to these traditions about Mary was so popular, however, that by the 9th century this day, August 15th, the eastern feast of the Dormition, had been adopted in the West under the title of the Feast of the Assumption, the bodily taking-up of Mary into heaven.
Theologians continued to resist making it into a doctrine, but pressure was building. A series of petitions, eventually totalling 8 million signatures, would be delivered to the Vatican, the last arriving in 1940 (when you’d think people might have had other things on their minds). A decade later, Pope Pius XII at last declared the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven to be an article of faith.
So it was that the church did what the church (including the Anglican church) sometimes does in the face of something new: first ignore – then disapprove – then make concessions – and finally say it was what you thought all along.
Some see the feast of the Assumption as the marking of a theoretically observable event. Others (and I'm one of them) prefer to see it as expressing some truths of faith. But what truths? I see it as a moment especially to contemplate the verse in Mary’s song – the Magnificat, this evening’s gospel reading – that God lifts up the lowly. The ‘lowly’ include those who are oppressed, but they can also be any of us who have a small hand in a great enterprise. Today we celebrate the exaltation of collaboration.
None of us manages anything significant all by ourselves. Think of the two gold-winning British relay teams in Berlin, each a mixture of stars and more modest performers, and each keen in their interviews to thank people who never set foot on the track and whom virtually no-one had heard of.
Cultures less atomised and privatised than ours acknowledge this quite readily. A Yoruba saying gave Hillary Clinton the title of her book, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’; the Zulus say, ‘Umuntu ungumuntu ngabuntu’: a person becomes a person because of people; and John Donne – ‘No man is an island’ – has been quoted to within an inch of his literary life.
Acknowledging this mutual dependence is one of the necessities of grown-up living. But today celebrates this necessity as a virtue, a thing to be exalted and magnified. Catherine of Sienna said that God had told her,
I could well have made human beings in such a way that they each had everything, but I preferred to give different gifts to different people, so they would all need each other.
And God could have brought us a kind of salvation that was untouched by human hand. But God preferred to bring salvation through the ultimate expression of ‘miraculous materiality’: Jesus, born as one of us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, with brother and sister – and mother (Mark 3.35).
And that is still the way God does it. Therein lies my dignity, and your glory, that God calls us to do what he wants to be done, and then waits for each one of us to answer, as Mary does to the angel,
‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.38)