Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary August 15, 2006
Rev. 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10 ab
Our first reading for this Mary feast comes from the last book in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. It is singularly the most misunderstood, misused and controversial book in the Bible. My reading of eight of the twelve “left behind” books while locked up in the Jackson Co Jail in Holton, KS, proved to me just how misunderstood, misused and profitable the Book of Revelation can be for a couple of authors who have a knack of telling a good story with a huge tailor made audience like the US evangelicals with money to burn. The left behind books were a fun read but very poor exegesis of Revelation.
Written at the end of the first century be a man named John who was exiled at the Roman penal colony for his Christian faith, the book of Revelation was most likely written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian who was a fierce persecutor of the early Church. It’s an account of visions John had, written in symbolic, allegorical language, much of which is borrowed from the Old Testament especially Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel. It also cross references symbols and images from pagan mythology. The book of Revelation is the best known work of apocalyptic literature popular with Jews and Christians between 150 BC and 200 AD.
The first thing you need to know when reading Revelation is that the symbols and images are not to be taken as literal descriptions, they are in no sense realistic pictures of things to come (a major misuse in the left behind books). The book must be understood against the historical context in which it was written. Like Daniel and other apocalypses it was written during times of persecution. Revelation is a call to resistance to the Roman Empire and its brutal persecution of the Church. The message is clear. John’s first century audience is told to stand firm in their faith, avoid compromise with paganism and despite persecution and martyrdom, wait patiently for Gods fulfillment of his promises and Jesus’ second coming.
“THEN GODS TEMPLE IN HEAVEN WAS OPENED AND THE ARK OF HIS COVENANT COULD BE SEEN.” Rev. 11:19a
The first verse from our Revelation text takes us to heaven and Gods temple where the Ark of the Covenant can be seen. Before the Ark was lost to Israel it was kept in Solomon’s temple in the Holy of Holies room where only the High Priest was allowed to see it. In John’s vision the reconstituted Temple is seen in Heaven and the Ark is made visible for all to see. The last half of verse 11:19 reads there were “flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake and a violent hailstorm” with this sighting of the heavenly Temple. I don’t know why the lectionary people dropped this last half of the last verse in chapter 11 from our text. It certainly adds to this heavenly sight a complete senses’ description of the experience.
A GREAT SIGN APPEARED IN THE SKY, A WOMAN……Rev 12:1
In contrast to the harlot Babylon who symbolizes the pagan Imperial city of Rome (Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:2, 10, 21) John writes of a woman who appeared in the skies. She is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is with child in the midst of giving birth. The woman symbolizes Gods people both in the Old and New Testaments. The Israel of old gives birth to the child, the Messiah (Rev 12:5) and then becomes the new Israel, the Church, who suffers persecution. (Is 50:1; 66”7’ Jer 50:12)
ANOTHER SIGN APPEARED IN THE SKY. IT WAS A HUGH RED DRAGON…..Rev 12:3
This dragon has seven heads and each head has ten horns and seven diadems. These heads, horns, and diadems represent the fullness of sovereignty that the dragon has over the kingdoms of the world. The dragon symbolizes the devil or Satan. Its tail swept away a third of the stars to the earth. The hurling of the stars to the earth represents the damage and violence the devil can do through his worldly kingdoms to the earth.
HER CHILD WAS CAUGHT UP TO GOD AND HIS THRONE. THE WOMAN HERSELF FLED INTO THE DESERT. Rev 12:5-6
The dragon positioned himself to devour the child as soon as he was born. The woman gave birth to “a male child, destined to rule all the nations” (Rev 12:5) fulfilled in Rev 19:15. Before the dragon can devour the child he is taken up to Gods throne and the woman flees to the desert where there is a place prepared for her. This story corresponds to a widespread myth in the pagan world in which a goddess pregnant with a savior was pursued by a horrible monster. Miraculously saved, the child is born and lives to kill the monster.
The skipped over verses from our text (Rev 12:7-9) describe a heavenly war between the good angels led by the Archangel Michael and the bad angels led by the dragon. Michael and the good angels win and the dragon is cast to the earth.
“NOW HAVE SALVATION AND POWER COME AND THE KINGDOM OF OUR GOD…..” Rev. 12:10
Our text ends with a heavenly voice telling John, the witness of this cosmic battle that with the dragons defeat the fullness of Gods kingdom to come is assured. In the very next verse (Rev 12:11) the voice says the victory was accomplished “by the blood of the lamb.”
The vision goes on to report a repeat of the cosmic war fought out on the earth in which the followers of Jesus suffer greatly but are encouraged to remain faithful to the ways of Jesus assured that in the end the side of good and God will ultimately win.
The gospel for this Mary feast is the Magnificat. It is found in the first chapter of Luke’s infant narrative. It brings to mind the Christmas season and the two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the four gospels, one in the gospel of Matthew and the other in the gospel of Luke. Both serve as prologues to their respective gospels. Both tell different birth stories from different perspectives yet both cover many of the same themes.
Matthew’s infant narrative is told from Joseph’s perspective. He is the main character and action hero. He is the one the angel visits in dreams telling him what to do, to accept Mary as his wife despite her being pregnant and he not being the father, to get out of Bethlehem before Herod’s death squads killed Jesus and to bring his family back from Egypt when it was safe.
In Matthew’s infant narrative Jesus’ birth was a highly visible, public, political event. It is made known by no less than a star, with Magi from Persia bearing gifts announcing Jesus’ birth in Jerusalem and to King Herod. The text says the whole city was in an uproar especially King Herod. After consulting with the Temple scribes Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the new king. Herod had evil intents to kill the child Jesus as soon as he found out where he was in Bethlehem. Herod’s plan was nothing new. He was simply doing what political operatives do to protect their political standing. Today they call it national security interests and counter insurgency efforts. The Magi pay their respects to Jesus but return to Persia without reporting to Herod. He over reacts to their deceit and sends his national security agents to Bethlehem to kill all male children under two years of age, a disproportionate response causing regrettable collateral damage. But due to a tip from an angel and the quick moves of Joseph the Holy Family finds safety by fleeing to Egypt.
Matthew’s Christmas story prefigures in dramatic narrative how the political world was going to deal with Jesus as an adult. Only in the end of the gospel Jesus does not escape death and is nailed to a cross by the state.
Luke’s infant narrative is told from an entirely different perspective. The main characters are two pregnant peasant Jewish women, both in what we would call today problem pregnancies. Elizabeth is a women way beyond her child bearing years yet she is with child. The maiden, Mary, no more than 14 years old is with child, but the father of the child is not her promised husband.
Unlike Matthew’s narrative, in Luke’s story Jesus is born at the margins of society with no cosmic star to announce the birth and no political fanfare surrounding the event. He is born in the poorest of circumstances on the out skirts of Bethlehem in a no nothing town, in a second rate country, controlled by the Roman Empire, in a lean-to stable surrounded by farm animals, clothed in farm barn rags. When the heavenly host of angels fill the skies with the first and most spectacular Christmas concert of all time, it was to a bunch of low life shepherds.
The real action in Luke’s version takes place in the heart of Mary but oh what a heart it is indeed! This feast day gospel is a great insight into Mary’s heart and why she is so important to the Church. The setting for Mary’s Magnificat prayer takes place when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. A more poignant and heartfelt encounter would be hard to find in the whole of the New Testament. Two pregnant, peasant Jewish women meet, both mindful of the hand of God in each others pregnancies, they embrace each other. Elizabeth’s child, the Baptist leaps within his mother’s womb at the presences of the in wombed Jesus. John doing in the womb what he will do as an adult in the Jordan River, announcing the coming of the Lord! Filled with the Holy Spirit Elizabeth greets her younger cousin, not more than a child herself with blessings as the mother of her Lord. And Mary responds with her Magnificat.
“MY SOUL PROCLAIMS THE GREATNESS OF THE LORD” Luke 1:46
Filled with God in every sense from within the womb to every cell in her body, Mary’s spirit sings out her praise to God. Mindful of her “lowliness” by worldly standards she knows because of the child she bears she will be held in the highest esteem for ages to come, something she knows is happening entirely through the power of God.
HIS MERCY IS FROM AGE TO AGE TO THOSE WHO FEAR HIM Luke 1:50
The whole of the New Testament message, the essence of the gospels, the reason and purpose for Jesus is wrapped up in this, the mercy of God. God’s mercy is the free gift of eternal life offered in and through Jesus “for those who fear God.” Fear is a bad thing in every and all cases except for one – the fear of God. The fear of God is the same as being “poor in spirit” recorded in the gospel of Matthew’s first beatitude (Mt 5:3). It means to be mindful of our complete dependency on God as creatures to our maker. It means being mindful that all life is a divine gift to be honored as if divine itself, “made in the image of God!” It is from this poverty of spirit – fear of God starting point that the gospel beatitudes of Matthew and Luke build their list of God’s favored and blessed people. It is the basis of the New Testament’s radical love driven call for justice that sets Christians apart from worldly ways and powers from age to age.
This mercy of God played out in the unjust world, where neither poverty of spirit nor fear of God is valued, has some inevitable consequences as listed by Mary in her Magnificat:
The arrogant of mind and heart are dispersed Luke 1:51
Rulers are dethroned Luke 1:52
The lowly are lifted up Luke 1:52
The rich are made poor Luke 1:53
The hungry are filled with good things Luke 1:53
Mary instinctively knows the son she bears in her womb will address these consequences directly in his adult life and pay a heavy price. Luke has Mary do in her Magnificat what Matthew does in his narrative drama, lay out how Jesus and his message will be received by the political world. In both infant narratives we are clued in to the fact that the rich and the powerful, those who rule the world through power, force and dominance will not receive Jesus and his message well. Little wonder that the Magnificat is one of the favorite texts of Liberation theologians and the poor and I believe it is why Mary is so much loved by all those who seek justice and suffer oppression.
THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY, A VERY ASSUMING FEAST
Let me first be clear that I believe in the three official Mary dogmas of the Catholic Church – the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth and the Assumption of Mary. Having had the advantage of many years of Catholic religious studies including a Masters Degree in Divinity and 18 years as a practicing Catholic priest I know the historical and philosophical development that produced these dogmas and the theological intent behind them. Still I question their value today to reveal the theological truths they are meant to convey.
From my own experience the effort and energies I needed to put forth to make these dogmas make sense in our modern context far exceeds the benefit of the theological insights received. At best the insights and knowledge of God and the incarnation that the Mary dogmas provide are redundant to the insight and revelation provided already in the Christology and dogmas attributed to the person of Jesus.
If the Mary dogmas were simple difficult to comprehend and redundant to the other more central teachings of our faith there would be no need for concern. However they Mary dogmas are not benign to our understanding of women in general and the person of Mary in particular. In practice the Mary dogmas have a negative unintended consequence.
When Mary is thought of primarily and almost exclusively from her dogmatic perspective, her humanness is lost. No matter how good or holy a woman may be, she can never be an equal to Mary. I know no woman who was immaculately conceived, who birthed a child and remained a virgin and who died and her physical body was assumed into heaven (wherever heaven is?). Yet I do know some good women who have and are living good and holy lives who because of them, I know better who Mary was for the early Church. The Mary dogmas make Mary an impossible role model for women today and it separates us from the equally real historical Mary, the first disciple among disciples in the early Church, the flesh and blood woman whose post Easter leadership was the basis for the dogmas that followed her. In short, for the sake of the dogmas, the Church has sacrificed Mary’s humanity and lost a great deal in the process.
In an effort to counterbalance the dogmatic side of Mary we would do well to lift up the “blue haired” senior citizen Mary of history. We could focus on the women who made the transition from natural mother to spirit lead disciple of her son, Jesus. Let’s stop holding her up as a singularly, stand alone, once in a salvation history person and start seeing her as one in a community of disciples who helped get the Church started.
If we were to shift our hearing of Mary’s Magnificat from the voice of a pregnant maiden to the elderly Mary of the early church, the prayer and its radical call for justice would ring out much clearer and truer. Mary would have had a lifetime of experiences, which included the ministry of her son, his death and resurrection and years of discipleship to draw on. If the prayer was really Mary’s in the first place (which I’d like to think so, biblical scholars notwithstanding) Luke would have heard it first from the lips of the elderly Mary and then written it back into his infant narrative.
When I look to the senior citizen Mary and the struggles she must have had within the early community of disciples I can more easily see her equals in my own life. I am reminded of the good and holy women I leaned on as a priest in parish ministry, many of them senior citizens who knew well the people I was assigned to serve and helped guide me in that effort. A good example would be the Des Moines chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. For years these “raging grannies” have led the DM peace community in our efforts at peacemaking and justice seeking on a local level. It is because they are women who have lived full lives, raising their children and their children’s’ children, often outliving their husbands, who have seen wars come and go and injustices continued that they come to peace and justice work late in life – the names of Helen Tichy, Helen Oster, Rita Hohenshell, Marie Molloy, Sheri Hutchison, the Hagedorn sisters, Jane Magers to name just a few. I sit here trying to make my list, but I know no matter how many I list, I will miss some. (Please forgive). These women in my eyes bear the image of Mary collectively for their work for peace and justice and should be recognized as such.
In my own family, my mother Angela whom we buried two years ago this July serves well as a Mary role model. As long as I can remember my mom had a great love for the poor and marginalized. She had a great passion for justice. She made the transition from just being our birth mother to fellow nonviolent resister to war and nuclear weapons. At one point in my criminal career I was able to say my Mom was a co-defendant of mine. And the best advice my Mom ever gave me (and she would give me a lot of advice, welcomed or otherwise) was to follow my heart. If my Mom was not what it means to be a modern day prayer of the Magnificat, then no one can pray that prayer today. But there are many who can pray this prayer. I know this from my own personal experience. If we are called to see Jesus in the poor, in whom there is nothing more common today than people who are poor, then we should be able to see Mary in the “raging grannies” of the world who are just as common.