Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August 2021
Out in the marshes of the Doñana national park in southwest Spain, there stands the Sanctuary of El Rocio, of Our Lady of the Dew, one of the great sites of pilgrimage in Spain. The streets around it are covered with sand as many of the pilgrims journey there and trot around on horseback. Like all the best Marian shrines it is remote; there are only 2 or three buses per day. One year I took the bus from Huelva, and stayed there. I assumed that the bus I needed to catch the next day to take me to Seville would pick me up from the same place in the centre of the village where I had been dropped off on Friday afternoon. On the Saturday morning, I waited and waited but no bus came. Eventually a passer-by told me the bus did not stop in the centre at the weekends but up by the main road. My heart sank as I realized my mistake. I had made an assumption, trusted my own judgement and not checked the facts.
It was a lesson to me that I do not know as much as I think I know, and that when I make assumptions I may get things wrong.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is celebrated today comes from another meaning of the word ‘assume’, that is ‘to take up’. Although there is no reference to the death of Mary in the Bible, (the last reference being of her with the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost), it is the long-standing tradition of the church dating back to apocryphal works of the fourth century that the Virgin Mary was taken up into heaven body and soul when she died. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Emperor Marcian and Empress Pulcheria requested Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem to bring the body of the Virgin Mary to Constantinople, but the bishop told them this was not possible: the apostles had witnessed the death of Mary but when the tomb was opened it was found to be empty.
The doctrine of the Assumption was defended by St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure and many other great Christian writers as the logical corollary of that of the Immaculate Conception. How could God possibly allow the pure body that brought his Son into the world to suffer decay? It was concluded that she must have followed her son and been taken up into heavenly glory. When Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950 in response to the demands of the faithful, it was the culmination of a long process.
Some might say that the doctrine is itself an assumption and a mistake, and an impediment in the path of Christian unity. However the important thing about the Feast of the Assumption is what it says about our ultimate destiny. It is a pointer, a fleshing out of the hope Jesus gives to his disciples, when he tells them “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also.” Jesus wants us to be with him, and the essence of his teaching is that God seeks to draw us all to himself.
What we believe about heaven, may well be based on assumptions. We may assume it will just be a reunion with those whom we love. But what about those good people whom we don’t like, what about them? Will we have to be with them too? Of course we will! It won’t be for us to decide who is there and who is not, and there may be some surprises!
We make our assumptions of what heaven will be like and we may assume that we will get there automatically by virtue of our justification by faith. Our medieval forbears made no such presumption. They believed that Mary and the saints were in heaven, but that ordinary folk like you and me had much work to do, in this world and beyond, to work towards our salvation. In the porch at Walpole St Peter, in the vault you will see the Assumption of Mary carved on one of the bosses indicating our glorious destiny, but next to it there is Christ sitting in judgement on the last day, warning us that we will have to be judged on our deeds, and may be found wanting. We may assume that we will be all right, that we are part of the in-crowd but Jesus says that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
To live by assumptions alone would be foolish, for we do not know as much as we think we know. No matter how old and experienced we are, we still have much to learn about life and death, about our Christian faith and our ultimate destiny. There is much to learn from those of other traditions, for example, if we will be open to them.
When Jesus entrusted the beloved disciple to his mother from the cross, she became the mother of the church, and behold from henceforth all generations have indeed called her blessed. In Mary we have been given an eternal mother, and from the glory of heaven, united with her son, we can ask for her prayers. And where our Mother has gone may we hope to follow.