Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Humble Handmaid

ASSUMPTION of the BVM #622

Rv 11, 19a. 12, 1-6a. 10
Ps 45
1 Cor 15, 20-27
Lk 1, 39-56

August 15, 2010
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

The Book of Revelation is full of fantastic and frightening images. Jewish writers were playing these marvelous and horrifying figures for at least a hundred years before we have them in the book we have today, Apocalypse or Revelation. Maybe it was John the Evangelist who put them together toward the end of his life, in exile on the Island of Patmos, a Roman prison colony. We don’t really know. The author works these images into a new pattern of Christian revelation, the lady clothed with the sun, standing on a crescent moon and wearing a crown of twelve stars, about to give birth is Mary, and her male child Jesus! A giant red dragon with seven heads and ten horns sweeps a third of the stars from the sky with his tail! Satan enraged at Christ, his deadly enemy. Many of the early Fathers didn’t want to include this book in the Bible at all. They thought it too confusing for most people, lay people and clergy as well, too fantastic, too frightening and too easy to misinterpret. One of my Scripture professors advised, “If you don’t have five years to spend studying Revelation, skip it!”

Apocalyptic writers were obsessed with a world they saw crumbling, their Hebrew world, little as it was but all they knew and loved. Israel no longer existed. It was Samaria. Judaea, all that was left of David’s kingdom, was under Roman occupation. These writers saw their Hebrew world falling apart at the seams under the impact of Greek and Roman culture, customs and ways. Most of the Jews were already in Diaspora, scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamia. Most Jews couldn’t even read Hebrew any more. They had been reading their Scriptures in Aramaic or in Greek translation for a couple of hundred years already, or not at all. The Temple priests, Sadducees, were playing it safe, making deals with the Romans, accommodating, watering down the Law for the sake of survival. The scribes and the Pharisees, on the other hand, were trying to call the people back to an ever more strict observance of the Law, and some of their extremists were even organizing violent revolution against Rome. That would mean certain death, the writers knew. And most people, then as now, didn’t really seem to care.

Plus ca change, as the French say. The more things change the more they remain the same. Sometimes it looks as if our world, the world we know is falling apart at the seams. Will the economy ever recover? Will we get our jobs back? Will our wars ever end, useless and unwinnable as they are? Can we save Social Security and Medicare? We are told we can’t afford them. We fire teachers, cut classes, close schools and libraries and parks and playgrounds. Where will the money come from to keep them? We spend just a little less than all the rest of the world combined on the military. Yes,that's right, just a little less that all the rest of the world combined on the military. The poor we send away empty.

Not long ago the US was number one in percentage of young people going to college. Not any more! Now we are number 12, behind Germany, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia, Italy, England and Ireland. Our health care index is even worse, about 32, just ahead of Slovenia. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The very best medical care anywhere in the world is available right here in the US, for those who can afford it. For them we are still Number One!

Our entire culture, based as it is on Jewish and Christian religious values, is undergoing a seismic shift toward – who knows what? Family values, the family itself, once thought sacrosanct, the basic cell of society, is now optional. The signs of the time are grim. “These are the worst of times, and they always have been,” Thomas Merton said. The writer of Revelation saw a world in crisis. It’s always in crisis! The End is near. It always has been near! But we are Christians. Be not afraid!

Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians in an apocalyptic frame of mind, but with a difference. He is triumphant. “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again…” “After that will come the end, when, having destroyed every sovereignty, authority and power, he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father….” Christians can not be pessimists. “The worst has happened, and been repaired,” as Julian of Norwich had it. Life is not as divine tragedy. It is a divine comedy.

Why does the Church link these readings in today’s Mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Mary has followed her son, assumed, taken up to Heaven, body and soul, soul and body!

We don’t, we can’t know what the next life will be. We can know this: Jesus has gone to the Father and he would have his mother with him where he is, not only because she is his mother but because she was above all angels and men and women. Mary saw reality with clarity, not as we do, “through a glass darkly.” Mary’s will never deviated from the good, free from the effects of Original Sin. At the moment of her death she did not experience corruption. God willed that Mary precede us to Heaven, body and soul, soul and body, not only because she is his son’s mother but because she never sinned. Sinners that we are, it is our destiny as well because she is our mother too. She would have it so as he will have it so if we will have it so.

What can it possibly mean, to rise from the dead, body and soul? What is a risen body, what will it be like? Will I have my gall-bladder back! I don’t want it! How about teeth? Will they break again? Silly questions, as Saint Paul points out a few verses after today’s reading. Paul compares the earthly body destined to corruption to the spiritual body that will rise from it. It is as if our present earthly body were a seed and our future spiritual body risen from it free forever from pain and corruption.

We have a mental image of Mary, most of us, I’m sure. “Lovely lady, dressed in blue….” We picture the Mysteries of the Rosary and we repeat the Hail Mary. There are paintings, reproductions of Mary on the walls of our homes, the Annunciation, the Visitation. But the Mary of today’s reading, the Magnificat, the humble handmaid of the Lord is also a strong woman. Even fierce! Listen to her words:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. … He has shown the might of his right arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty.” Without even a tax break!

Jesus’ mercy exceeds his justice, that is true. His mother is our mother, waiting with words to soothe, arms to embrace, that is true. But there is another side to Jesus and to Mary, one that must give us pause. He is a judge. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisee hypocrites!” And again, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and Mary’s warning today to the rich and powerful. It’s all true.

Whatever the future, however the End, we can be sure that God’s plan for us is glorious. “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One, the Christ, have come.”

The rabbis envisioned Heaven as a banquet. That’s not a bad idea. All our family and friends around us, a circle unbroken, gathered around Jesus and Mary. Our happiest memories relived and forever, and more than that, much more. We shall be like God, God-like, for we shall see him as he is. Mary is preparing a place for us, just as she prepared for Jesus before his birth and nurtured him through his young life. She, our mother, goes before and prepares a place for us before our birth to eternal life. It’s true, now and forever. 