In the Old Testament 2 characters are described as being assumed into the presence of God at the close of their lives. Enoch and Elijah: In Genesis we hear that, “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him (Gen 5:24).And the letter to the Hebrews recalls his entry into heaven. “ By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was found no more because God had taken him (Heb 11:5). The prophet Elijah was assumed into heaven. “Elijah went up into heaven in a whirlwind,” the second book of the Kings tells us (2:11). And it was this assuming, this gathering to himself of his chosen, that the early church began to ascribe to the close of the Blessed Virgin’s life on earth, and her journey to God, when he honoured her as the most faithful disciple of her Son and Lord. Mary passes through death to share in the resurrection life of her Son, and so this feast speaks to us of the hope that is set before us. She points us towards, and exemplifies the journey we all must take through death and judgement into glory, please God.
This is, after all, how all of us have come to the faith, by the witness and encouragement of the company of ‘saints’; both in the church triumphant, and the church militant. Eventually there were those who were determined to strip away any tradition that they didn’t see set out quite explicitly in scripture, despite the fact that, as Rowan Williams points out in his latest book exploring Eastern Orthodoxy, we forget that scripture itself is the child of the tradition, the handing down of the memories, but also, just as vitally, the interpretation set on those memories, the development of the faith of the church as it felt the impact of its immediate historical experience.
In Antwerp, in the year 1566 the feast of Mary’s entry into heaven culminated in a Solemn Mass in the Cathedral, after which the statue of Mary and her Child was carried in procession around the city streets; a day for rejoicing and hope. But the next day a mob of so called ‘reformers’ burst into the Cathedral, and beginning with this statue they proceeded to deface and smash every single image, sculpture and painting of the saints in the building. Ironically the one image they left untouched was the figure of the impenitent thief on a Calvary. There was no chance that he would be venerated. Ironically what they left standing was an image of un-believing, with nothing to catch the imagination, or the devotion of faith, an impoverishment of belief. In effect their wanton act of desecration ‘dehumanised’ what is, after all a faith that speaks of God taking on himself our flesh, our humanity, and transforming it once more to its primordial destiny, to make us the reflection and image of the beauty and likeness of God himself. The saints, and especially the mother of God, set before us the possibility of our own redemption and transformation.
Ours is a faith that is ‘embodied’, active in a material and physical world, and in everyday living. These iconoclasts were dismissing this ancient Christian conviction which encouraged what the 2nd Council of Nicaea, in 787, called,“ the worship of God, and the veneration of his Mother, and of the Saints,” The community of faith affirmed its experience that the examples and prayers of the saints encourage and promote our own growth in holiness, allowing us to find ways of relating to God, to our neighbour and to our world.
It is hard to understand such an aggressive dismissal of this celebration of Mary, and with it the airbrushing out any thought of saints and holy ones. It stands in stark contradiction with the praise of Mary, and the recognition of her immense significance in the history of salvation in Islam for instance; where Maryam binat Imran -Mary, daughter of Amram, holds a singularly exalted place as the only woman named in the Quran, which refers to her seventy times, recalling the greeting of the angel to her . “O Mary, God has chosen you, and purified you; He has chosen you above all the women of creation. “
The only way that this rich tradition of honouring her exists in Islam, with its origins in the 7th century of the Christian era, is because this tradition was already a part of the Church’s life, which it is thought Mohammed learnt something of from the small Christian community in Medina and the area. In Islam, as in Judaism, with its stories of Enoch and Elijah, despite their condemnation of image making, there is this same tradition of honouring the holy ones. Mary, In Islam Mariam, is given many honorific titles. ”Sayyidatuna”, meaning “Our Lady”; a parallel to “Sayyiduna” (“Our Lord”), used for the prophets. “Siddiqah”, the righteous one, “She who confirms the truth”, ( very close to the title of one of the most revered icons of Mary and her Son which depicts her pointing us toward her child, entitled “She who points the Way.” Islam too sees her as the model of faith, calling her “She who believes sincerely, completely”. And “Qānitah”, which remembers her constant submission to the will of God, and her absorption in prayer. And finally it honours her as “The one who has been purified”. The Koran sees Mary as one of two humans in creation (and the only woman) not to be touched by Satan at any point.
We must never forget that that any devotion or honour given to Mary by the Church is there only there to show us the transforming power of God’s Spirit in our lives, and, above all, the true identity of her Son, God the Word made flesh
This richness and celebration of holy living within the community of faith is something that scripture has always celebrated. John in his prologue to the Gospel tells us “of His fullness, (Christ’s fullness) we have all received.” And Paul again uses this word ‘Pleroma’ – Fullness- to describe the way in which the risen and triumphant Christ now begins to fill out the lives of his followers by the power of his Spirit. And it is in such lives that we see the activity of God made plain and approachable, possible for us. We have a daily need to see the presence and activity of God in all sorts and conditions of women and men and children, that great cloud of witnesses that the letter to the Hebrews speaks of.
In the early days of the 20th Century, at an Anglo-Catholic Congress in the Albert Hall, an Anglican Benedictine Monk began his lecture with this striking remark, “ Man is an incorrigible idolater!” Reflecting on this, at first sight remote remark, we can see that it is part and parcel of our human psyche, at its best, to seek out and contemplate images of the good, that can inspire, and teach, and point us forwards into lives to be lived more carefully, more lovingly, more ready to relate to, be open to, those about us, and respectful and caring of our environment; Stories of lives well lived; Images that evoke our love and awaken our energies. Christians believe that we see that energy and the empowering of Christ’s Spirit above all in the life of Mary.
We know that from the earliest days of its life the church reflected on Mary’s unique significance to us. In the east, at the request of the faithful a feast was established to celebrate her ‘Dormition’, her ‘falling asleep’ in the Lord, and her entry into the heavenly realm,
[ The traditonal image of the Dormition makes reference to this truth, above the funeral bier of Our lady, surrounded by grieving apostles, stands her Son, holding in his arms his mother, wrapped in swaddling clothes, as He mothers her into eternal life.)
In our own Anglican tradition it is often in our hymns, and liturgy that our theology is forged. “O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” we sing, echoing earlier orthodox hymns But for all Christians it is honour that we give Mary, not worship. She is, after all, as scripture reminds us, someone who sometimes struggles with her believing and understanding. That is what encourages us of course to draw close to her, and ask her help. One contemporary theologian, James Alison, points to this authenticity in the life of Mary and the saints. He writes,“ these
( struggles of faith) are part of the creative tensions of what was being brought about by real human beings over time, and by real human beings interacting with each other.” That is what makes the faith more accessible and possible for us, to know that vulnerability, and yet courage and persistence, in the lives of the saints. We need them, and take heart from their continuing prayer and encouragement, as we follow their footsteps into the joy of the eternal banquet.
Rowan Williams reminds us that “It is not only that we cannot understand Mary without seeing her as pointing to Christ; we cannot understand Christ without seeing his attention to Mary.”[ And we have only to look at the 18th C Bishop Thomas Ken’s own celebration of todays feast in his poetry to know that Mary has a firm place in our own tradition and devotion.
“Heaven, with transcendent joys, her entrance graced.
Next to his throne the Son his Mother placed.
And here below, now she’s of heaven possest,
all generations are to call her blest.”