Saturday, August 14, 2010

Homily for Vigil of the Assumption

for the Vigil of the Assumption
of the Blessed Virgin Mary
August 15, 2010
1 Chr 15: 3-4, 15-16; 16: 1-2
1 Cor 15: 54-57
Luke 11: 27-28
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“They brought in the ark of God and set it within the tent which David had pitched for it” (1 Chr 16: 1).

In 1-2 Chronicles a sacred writer whom we call the Chronicler offers to God’s people a version of their history with a particular theological slant to it, as also does the sacred writer we call the Deuteronomist in the 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, a source that the Chronicler used to compile his work.

In both of these sacred histories—which, as we understand history, might be called theological histories—we read of David’s concern for “the ark of God,” the ark of the covenant.[1] The ark was the sacred chest in which were preserved the 2 stone tablets of the Law which God himself was believed to have inscribed and given to Moses. A later tradition of the rabbis held that the ark also contained some of the manna from the desert and Aaron’s staff.

More important, and the reason for the ritual celebration that King David organized, is that the Israelites believed the ark was the very throne of God, who dwelt, invisibly, over it between the 2 golden cherubim affixed to its top, facing each other. When Solomon built the Temple, the ark was placed in the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter, and only on the Day of Atonement.

Mary of Nazareth, the virgin mother of our Lord Jesus, is called the ark of the covenant (Litany of Loreto) because God did, literally, dwell within her. Just as Israel celebrated and honored God by celebrating and honoring the wooden ark that Moses had crafted, so do we celebrate and honor God by celebrating and honoring the woman who conceived and carried him in her womb. There is in this verse from the Chronicler—“They set [the ark] within the tent which David had pitched for it”—a sort of preview or audio foretelling of St. John’s rhapsody on the Incarnation of the Word of God, which “became flesh and pitched his tent among us,” a literal reading of the Greek text (1:14).[2]

Too bad we don’t have “chanters, musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals, to make a loud sound of rejoicing” (1 Chr 15:16) here this evening.

As David arranged for the ark to be carried in a triumphant procession into the Holy City, and set up within a tent specially prepared for it, so—we believe as Catholic Christians—has God the Father brought the ark of the new covenant, the Virgin Mother, into the New Jerusalem and set her in a place specially prepared for her. Using an old political model, we allude to a throne, a crown, queenship. I suppose today we’d call her heaven’s First Lady.[3] Be that as it may, we believe that God has raised Mary to the life of resurrection, the 1st fully redeemed disciple of our Savior, her Son. We imagine her surrounded by angels and saints—the latter as yet disembodied before the Last Day and the general resurrection—who fill in the Israelites’ role of chanters, instrumentalists, and thurifers around the Father and the Son, with the Son’s mother close at hand.

Mary surrounded by angels: St. Vincent's Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
All of which is prelude. I.e., Mary’s victory over the grave, Mary’s share in her Son’s conquest of death, is a sign of what is to come for all Jesus’ disciples, when “that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,” when “death is swallowed up in victory” thru the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Cor 15:54-57). God’s grace has triumphed sooner (in our human way of speaking), more immediately, in the mother of Jesus. But it will triumph also in all her children, all who are joined by spiritual adoption to the Son of her flesh.
On that we have Jesus’ own word. We know well that rulers in the ancient world, as well as in our own day, had a strong tendency to favor their own. Even the medieval Church had to contend with nepotism; truth be told, the modern Church has had to cope with that too. Thus we hear a woman shout out from the crowd around Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27). That’s not blessed in the sense of “blessed by God,” but μακαρία, “happy,” “lucky,” “fortunate”—because those in power, those with influence, use it to take care of their own, like modern athletes using that first big contract to buy a new house or a BMW for Mom. The woman in the crowd figures that Jesus will take good care of Mom; she probably also reckons on motherly pride in his accomplishments as a blessing.

But that word in its generic masculine plural form, μακάριοι, is the word Jesus uses—or at least St. Matthew and St. Luke do—in the Beatitudes, and it’s the word he uses here as well, to broaden the availability of happiness, luck, good fortune: “Rather, blessed (happy, lucky, fortunate) are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (11:28). No one has to rely on a blood relationship with Jesus, with membership in his clan, to have a claim on the blessings he offers. St. John says something similar in the prolog to his gospel: the power to become children of God is given not to those “born of blood,” i.e., in a family relationship to some favored person (such as Christ or Abraham) but to anyone who believes in the name of Jesus (1:12-13). Anyone who listens to Jesus hears God’s word. Anyone who believes in Jesus accepts God’s word. Anyone who observes that word, keeps that word, is favored by God. That favor is available to anyone, not only to Jesus’ mother or his immediate human family.

Or, as Deacon Greg Kandra puts it in his homily for this evening: “It has nothing to do with biology, or DNA. It is everything to do with trust. With love. With obedience.”[4]
Madonna and Child, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit: Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

The Virgin of Nazareth was the 1st to hear and accept God’s word, as she answered God’s invitation conveyed by Gabriel: “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), an acceptance that made of her womb the ark of the living God, an acceptance that started her, and all who welcome the Word of God, on the road of salvation, the road toward the life of resurrection.
[1] 2 Sam 6 and 1 Chr 15-16.[2] ’εσκήνωσεν ’εν ‘ημίν.[3] The late Salesian writer Fr. Peter Lappin indeed wrote a Marian book called First Lady of the World (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 1988).[4] The Deacon’s Bench, August 14, 2010:

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