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Homily - Feast of the Assumption - Bishop McKeown

Sunday, 15 August 2021 

There is a VERY old Latin saying that gives an important insight into who we are and what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi means that there is a harmony between how we pray and what our faith teaches. Today's liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption is a clear example of that. If we look at the Preface of the Mass – the part that leads up to the Holy, Holy and states our reasons for giving thanks to God – we will hear the following words.

Today the Virgin Mother was assumed into heaven,

As the beginning and image of your Church's coming to perfection

and as a sign of sure hope and comfort for your pilgrim people.

Nothing that happens in our faith story is just about individuals or particular saints or even about Mary, the Lord's mother. Everything that forms part of our faith is about the love of God that saves the world. So, what might we learn from today's feast about our faith story, in which the bible tells us that Mary is a key figure?

Firstly, we live in a very imperfect world and in a Church that bears the mark of weakness and sin. What gives us a reason for looking forward is that God has promised that all things will be reconciled in Christ at the end of time. That is the message of our second reading. In the journey towards that end point, Mary is the first human being to know the salvation that has been won for the whole world by her Son Jesus. Mary is the beginning and image of what we are all invited to take part in. Mary's way to heaven is a sign of sure hope and comfort for us on our pilgrim journey. We are all called to share in the Resurrection of Jesus. We will be raised up on the Last Day. Mary has gone that way before us as a sign of what we are called to become through grace. The Assumption is not referred to the in the scriptures – but this feast celebrates something that points to the biblical narrative. The Assumption is meaningless without knowing what it says about the big picture of God's salvation. Today Mary asks us to know the story of God's work for our salvation that began after the sin of Adam - and not merely quibble over how it happened and whether Mary had to die or not before the Assumption.

Secondly, the Resurrection of Jesus and today's feast tell us that the human body is a sacred object. It will be raised up at the end of time. Mary was an unknown young woman who suffered much in his life. But what kept her going was the belief that God's love was at work in the middle of the mess. Our modern culture, on the one hand grants infallibility the body and its desires – and on the other hand says that our bodies have only superficial value. The young and the beautiful have passing worth. The rest have little significance. Today's feast tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that they can be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ and that human life is never cheap or disposable, in order to suit somebody else's agenda or comfort. Our whole sexual morality starts, not with the question "why can't I?" but with the belief that my body is sacred and that everything I do in my body should prepare me for eternal life with God. Today is a feast where Mary's story can promote a culture that treats the human body with respect – and fighst a culture that demeans the human body and deprives us of dignity. A Christian culture can re-emerge when we say that "I'm worth it", not because we can rub some cream on parts of our body or hair, but because Jesus took on our flesh and blood and will raise up our bodies. That really tells us that we are worth something!

Thirdly, our first reading comes from the strange Book of Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible that gives glimpses of what will happen when all things are reconciled in Christ. Scripture scholars say that the figure of the woman with the crown of 12 stars is not primarily Mary but rather the Church, the mother of the new people of God, the Bride of Christ, persecuted in the 1st century by the Roman Empire, the seven-headed beast, based on the seven hills of Rome. By extension, Catholic theology has traditionally seen Mary as a model of the Church, the one who bears the Body of Christ to the world, the image of the Church that will be glorified at the end of time. Like today's liturgy, the documents of Vatican II place Mary at the heart of the Church, not separate from it. She has a pre-eminent role to play in our salvation, she is - in biblical terms - the virgin who will conceive and bear a Son, the one overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the one blessed among women. We place Mary among the saints and not separate from them. Eucharistic Prayer 1 tells us that we venerate the memory of the saints and "above all of the glorious and ever-virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ." Our Christian story has to find room for the role that the history of salvation gives to Mary. Neglect of that role impoverishes a biblical faith.

I began by quoting the liturgy, saying that Mary is a sign of the hope for God's pilgrim people. And what is Mary's response when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth in today's Gospel? She gives all glory to God who does great things with little people. She knows that she is a lowly handmaid of the Lord – but that God's mercy reaches from age to age on those who fear him. Mary proclaims a God who pulls down those who are proud of heart because they think they are mighty. Can we celebrate this feast in a way that helps us to three things?

  1. It can aid us to know the full story that we proclaim about God's love for the world and his desire to restore it in Christ. Scattered, unconnected bits of the story are not enough if we are to proclaim the full Christ to our world.
  2. It can invite us to rediscover the dignity of the human body in a culture where pornography has reduced human flesh to little better than a cattle market.
  3. It can inspire us to gather each week and be a people who give praise to God rather than be trapped by a culture of fear and anger.

Mary is the model disciple who knows that it is not all about her but about God working in little people. Mary realises the dignity of our human lives. And she delights today that God enables her to be the beginning and image of God's Church's coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort for God's pilgrim people. Today is a feast worth celebrating.

+ Donal McKeown

You may also be interested in...

The Very Rev Richard Gibbons celebrates Mass on the Feast of the Assumption from the basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland in Knock, Sunday, 15 August 2021.

View the Mass recording: 

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