By Stewart Clem
On August 15 the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout the centuries, the Church has honored Mary in various ways and with many titles: the Blessed Virgin, the Queen of Heaven, Theotokos (“God-bearer”), including titles that refer to specific aspects of her life, such as Our Lady of Sorrows, or to specific miraculous appearances, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
One motif that appears frequently in the Church’s worship is Mary’s place as an image of the Church. In a hymn written by Vincent Coles, for example:
Therefore let all faithful people
sing the honor of her name;
let the Church, in her foreshadowed,
part in her thanksgiving claim;
what Christ’s mother sang in gladness
let Christ’s people sing the same. (The Hymnal 1982, 268)
It’s quite a statement to claim that Mary somehow foreshadows the entire Church, but it’s worth asking: What do we mean by the Church? When we say that Mary foreshadows the Church, do we mean the local congregation on Sunday morning? Do we mean the Episcopal Church? Do we mean everyone who ascribes to some sort of belief system called Christianity? If we want to know what it means to say that Mary foreshadows the Church, it might help to know what Church we’re talking about.
The 1979 prayer book gives us some guidance here. In the Post Communion Prayer (Rite I), we find the Church described as “the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and … heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom” (p. 339).
If we are part of the Church, this mystical body, then we are heirs of God’s everlasting kingdom. But we only have to look around to realize that we have not yet inherited God’s everlasting kingdom. The world is still full of hurt and heartache, and our own lives are incomplete. There is still much work for God to do.
But Mary’s life is complete. I do not only mean that her life is complete in the sense that she died. Her life is not complete merely because it is over. Her life is complete because she, as the first among the saints, has been taken up into heaven and enjoys everlasting communion with her son and her savior, Jesus Christ.
This is what we mean when we talk about Mary’s Assumption into heaven. Since the Bible doesn’t give any details about Mary’s death or her departure from this world, the Episcopal Church doesn’t have a position or doctrine on the matter, unlike our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Sam Keyes once wrote on this blog about a seminary professor who didn’t believe in the Assumption of Mary into heaven because it was an assumption. In other words, there wasn’t any good reason to believe it.
It helps if we keep in mind exactly what the Assumption of Mary is all about. First of all, we should remember what it isn’t: We do not call this feast the Ascension of Mary into heaven. Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after his resurrection and sits on the right hand of the Father. He did this by his own power, and it’s a powerful reminder that the risen Jesus, in his full humanity and his full divinity, has not left us to our own resources, but will come again in glory.
Mary’s assumption, however, is another matter. She died an earthly death, as all people do. But the belief that she was assumed bodily into heaven is the belief that Jesus’ mother is the first human being to receive the promises given to all who have died and been born anew in Christ.
And this is how Mary foreshadows the Church. She shows us where we are heading. She shows us the final destination of each new person who is baptized. And whenever we receive Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, or confess our sins, or give food to the poor in the name of Christ, we are following the road that has already been paved by Mary. And this gives us hope.
So what does that mean for us? How does this hope shape us into the Church that Christ has called us to be?
Her example shows us what it means to have true faith. In St. Luke’s Gospel, an angel tells Mary that she is going to bear a child, even though she is a virgin and has no husband. Upon hearing this news, she replies, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (1:38). Now, out of context, this story seems a little bit ridiculous for a number of reasons. If all we know is this one little snippet of a story, then Mary should strike us as rather naïve and subservient.
For many people, this is what they think of when they hear the word faith. They think it means something like blind trust or an overblown zeal to believe something that doesn’t have any basis. But that’s not at all what it means for Christians to have faith. And Mary’s response to God wasn’t based on whimsy on some Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out for the best.
Mary’s response, her Yes to God, was grounded in a profound wisdom that can only come about from a deep relationship with God. How do we know this? We only have to look at her song, known as the Magnificat, in St. Luke’s Gospel: “For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations” (1:49-50). These words reveal that Mary has a deep, intimate knowledge of God’s dealings with his people. She knows the Scriptures, and her life has been shaped by her participation in the worshiping community.
In a way, God’s announcement through the appearance of an angel wasn’t a surprise at all. Surely Mary was surprised in the moment. But at the same time, her response reveals a spiritual depth and stability that says, “Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing that God would do. It’s nothing I could have imagined, but this completely fits with the God that I know and love.”
This same confidence is what would support Mary during the many trials in her life. She would watch her son suffer and die at the hands of cruel torturers. She would struggle during his whole life to understand what it meant to be the mother of God’s Son. She knew — and she learned, even more deeply — that God’s dramatic action in bringing his Son into the world did not mean that everything and everyone would be made better overnight.
If anything, Mary was the very opposite of naïve. She knew that God “hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:52). She knew that God “hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). But she also knew that God does things in his own time, and that many sorrows lay ahead of her before God’s promises would be fulfilled.
And that is what true faith looks like. This is what we proclaim and celebrate today, and what we aspire to be as a Church. Ivone Gebara beautifully captures the meaning of Mary’s assumption:
Just as proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus means continuing to announce his passion which continues in those who are crucified and suffer injustice in this world, by analogy, believing in Mary’s assumption means proclaiming that the woman who gave birth in a stable among animals, whose heart was pierced with a sword of sorrow, who shared in her son’s poverty, humiliation, persecution, and violent death, who stood at the foot of the cross, the mother of the condemned, has been exalted. … The assumption is the glorious culmination of the mystery of God’s preference for what is poor, small, and unprotected in this world, so as to make God’s presence and glory shine there. (Celebrating the Saints: Devotional Readings for Saints’ Days [Morehouse Publishing, 2001], selection for Aug. 15)
May God give us faith, so that we too can follow Mary into heaven, and declare with confidence, “my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47).