The Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady – 15 August 2020
Lectionary Readings: Rev 11:19; 12:1-6, 10; Ps 45:10-12, 16; 1 Cor 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
Theme: The Mother of the Lord
Nothing in the rest of the New Testament prepares us for the Apocalypse, also known as Revelation, which is a book of profound theology. Written by a Christian prophet named John, late in the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE), it belongs to a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, of which the book of Daniel is the only other example in the Christian Bible. It has inspired Christians through the centuries, provided a prophetic critique of oppression both within state and church, and sustained hope and resistance in the most hopeless situations. Concerned with the contradiction between God’s rule over God’s creation and the apparently unchecked dominance of evil in the world, it calls us to a life of uncompromising Christian witness. Using symbolic visions and fantastic imagery, it gives hope of a final resolution of history in which God will bring good out of all the evils of this world and renew creation. It speaks to those whose view of the world is controlled by the power and propaganda of the dominant political and economic system. It draws us into different ways of seeing things, aiming to reveal ‘the truth of things’ from God’s perspective, thus liberating us from the dominant world view. The passage we read from it today tells the story of God’s people in conflict with evil, using imagery of the woman, the dragon and the child. Taking us back to Genesis 3:15, the serpent of Eden is identified with the dragon Leviathan of Isaiah 27:1, an image of ultimate evil: ‘That day, the LORD will punish, with God’s hard sword, massive and strong, Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent; the LORD will kill the sea-dragon.’ From both precedents in the Hebrew Scriptures and also pagan sources, the expectation is that the child would destroy the dragon. Mary, Jesus’ mother, is scarcely in view in the symbolic, not historical account of this child’s birth and immediate rapture to heaven; rather, as her crown of twelve stars shows, the woman in the sky is the people of God (both Israel and the church). The passage is not about Mary’s pregnancy so much as the sufferings of Israel from which the messiah came – and which he bore.
Psalm 45 is probably a psalm for a royal wedding, but some have thought of it in terms of God’s ‘marriage’ with Israel, as in Isaiah 62:4-5: ‘… no longer are you to be named “Forsaken”, nor your land “Abandoned”, but you shall be called “My Delight” and your land “The Wedded”; for the LORD takes delight in you and your land will have its wedding.’
The sense of complete reversal in Psalm 45, of God triumphantly bringing good out of a desperate situation, echoes the leitmotif running through the Apocalypse and will be echoed again, in a different way, in Mary’s Magnificat, which is our gospel reading today from Luke. Mary’s song is, of course, strongly influenced by that of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 which, celebrating the birth of Samuel, sees the wonder of God’s action in this event as an illustration of the nature of God’s whole work for God’s people: ‘The LORD raises the poor from the dust, God lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour.’ In choosing Mary as the mother of God’s son, God has rewarded her ‘lowliness’ and lifted her high. God’s dealings with her become a paradigm of the redemption that God effects through Jesus. As in Luke’s version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-6), this redemption is centred upon those who are marginalized by society: ‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God.’ Those who are ‘proud’, ‘powerful’, and ‘rich’, who maintain and exploit their self-sufficiency, are unlikely to be open to God’s future. In this passage, Mary is acknowledged as the ideal disciple, for Elizabeth greets her as ‘the mother of my Lord’ – ‘Lord’ is Luke’s most characteristic title for Jesus and his favourite address to him. All the infancy narratives in Luke sum up the whole event of Jesus and look at its beginnings in terms of its end, looking also towards the end times, as does the Apocalypse, which concludes with the words, ‘The one who guarantees these revelations repeats his promise: I shall indeed be with you soon. Amen; come Lord Jesus.’
Paul’s concern in the passage we read from his First Letter to the Corinthians is that they should hold firm to their faith in the resurrection of Jesus, since some had begun to say ‘there is no resurrection of the dead’. He sets out to demonstrate the pivotal significance of the resurrection of Jesus within the scheme of salvation, founded on an apocalyptic notion of the age of death being succeeded and overcome by an age of life, the latter being ushered in by a cosmic act of resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection of Christ constitutes the ‘first fruits’ of that cosmic act. By pairing Christ with Adam, Paul finds in Christ the start of a new humanity, in which the failures of the present are replaced by the possibilities of the future, made so for the whole of humanity by Christ. Paul says that the cosmic transformation takes place in successive phases. It is an apocalyptic scenario in which the risen Christ plays a crucial role: it is through his present reign that God’s enemies are being defeated, as God puts them in subjection to him. Even so, Paul insists that Christ is ultimately subordinate to God, who is the one to whom Christ is subject in ‘handing over the kingdom’.