[This is a homily I gave on the feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God, ten years ago. Thanks be to God, all his mysteries are timeless!]
Why are we going through all of this trouble today, this ritual and ceremony with flowers and incense and candles and song and vestments and all the rest? To the whole world, this is just another day, but in this little space, it has been transformed into a great and holy celebration. What we’re celebrating is our Mother! Now, if something glorious and miraculous happened to your own mother, you would certainly be filled with joy and want to share in that wonderful thing. And when other people learned about what great things God had done for your mother, you would be so proud, and you would say, “That’s my mother!”
Well, it’s our Mother that we’re celebrating today. We’re celebrating the great things that God has done in her. But it’s not just our Mother that we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating the ultimate meaning of our lives and our eternal destiny in the Kingdom to come—that’s the profundity of the mystery of the dormition and assumption of the Mother of God. It’s not just for her glory that we’re doing this—of course, it is to a certain extent, and we should be glad for all that God has done in her life and all that she does for us, through her intercession and her maternal protection and presence in our lives—but it still goes beyond that. There’s a mystery of our salvation that’s being expressed here in the dormition and bodily assumption of the Mother of God.
Sometimes when I give retreat talks on subjects that relate to this, I ask, “What is it that confirms Christ’s promises to us about everlasting life and the resurrection of the dead that we say in the Creed?” And nobody ever gets it! They sit there, scratching their heads, and come up with some far-fetched replies to this. But this mystery is the answer: the fact that Christ has raised up his Mother, body and soul, and glorified her in Heaven, proves to us that He’s good for his word! For Himself, He rose from the dead by his own power. He had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. But Mary did not, and we do not: we can’t raise ourselves up from the dead. Now the Lord told us that this resurrection is something that we can expect, too, and that should be enough for us. But the Lord gives us a little more: Not only am I going to tell you that I’m going to do this for you, I’m going to start it off. I’m going to give you an example. I’m going to do it for one of you, and you will see that this is what is meant for all of you.
Thus Our Lady, in her own being, in her own state of glory and perfection before the face of God in Heaven, is what God is telling us we are going to be—that what she is, as the icon, the image of the Bride, of the Church of Christ, is something that we are to share in. All this is something that God has done out of his everlasting love for us. We see, in the Letter to the Philippians today, the passage about the Incarnation, about the self-emptying of Christ: his descent into this world. He, being in the form of God, came to us in the form of man, literally, “in the form of a slave.” He became one of us. He came down so that Mary, and we with her, could go up. As the fathers say, “God became man so that we can become like God.” So this mystery of Christ’s self-emptying and descent unto suffering and death, is the sine qua non of our exaltation, of our going up to Heaven where He has been from all eternity. That is why this reading from St Paul is chosen, to show that the descent of Christ and his subsequent exaltation is the foundation for the ascension, the resurrection, the glorification of each one of us, and in a special way of Our Lady, because she has gone before us as the witness to everything that God is going to do with us, and the manifestation of it in her own person.
So what are we to do now? We have this mystery placed before us; it looks so wonderful, and it is, and it should inspire us with much hope and motivation to hear the word of God and keep it. What is sometimes recommended, for our living the mystery and being faithful to God, is the imitation of Christ and his Mother, in their holiness of life. Now, I don’t much like the term “imitation,” and neither did the fathers, because “imitation” sounds too much like a sort of mimicking or external reproducing of words and actions. But literally that’s impossible, simply because we can’t do and say everything that Christ and Our Lady did, and we’re in a completely different historical and cultural context, and we have different and unique personalities and temperaments and capacities and life histories, which have an effect on the way we think and act. So the fathers, rather than speak of imitation, speak more of participation, of communion, of transfiguration.
It’s not so much we see this model out there that we try to imitate, but we enter into a personal communion with God, and also a personal relationship with Our Lady, and through that personal communion the face of Christ shines through us and transforms our thoughts and words and actions. That’s something different than just trying to put our feet in his footsteps. He goes into us and changes us and then it’s not imitation any more: it’s participation, it’s communion, it’s transfiguration. It is sharing the life of Christ, like his Mother did. That’s the important thing. It’s better to be like the Mother of God, let her guide us, and let the Holy Spirit change us from within, than simply to sing praises. The praises are one way of manifesting something that’s already happened, something that’s already real inside of us.
I remember when I was getting ready for my ordination to the priesthood, and I’d chosen the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady as the date for my ordination. I was already getting holy cards made up—an icon of Our Lady. But at the last minute, the Bishop called up and said, “I can’t do it on that day; we’ll do it next week, on the feast of the Cross!” I felt like, “What! After all this?” I really wanted to do something for Our Lady, I really wanted it to be a Marian event because of my devotion to her, and I wanted to be ordained on her feast day—and all of a sudden the Bishop says, “Oh, I forgot, I have to cut the ribbon at this new parish…” It was over: no ordination on the feast of Our Lady. So I remember talking to Fr. Boniface, kind of grumbling about it, and he said, “Rather than grumble about not having your ordination on the feast of Our Lady, why don’t you just be like Our Lady, and just say ‘yes’ to God, and do his will?” He didn’t mince words about stuff like that, but it was the truth. It’s like it says in the beginning of the epistle of St Paul: it’s better to have the mind of Christ in you. So he was telling me to have the mind of Our Lady in me, live in her spirit, and don’t just do external things, saying you think you’ll give her honor by being ordained on her feast day when she says “I want you to do the will of God and make a little sacrifice.”
So that’s the communion with God and the relationship with Our Lady that we want to have, that expresses itself in a new way of living, a new way of perceiving, thinking, and feeling, as members of the Body of Christ. Then things will start to change; then our praises of Our Lady will have more meaning and won’t be just an external thing, but will really be an expression of a communion that already exists. This is the kinonia that the fathers speak about and that the liturgy speaks about; it’s a real participation. In the Second Letter of St Peter he says, “You become partakers of the divine nature,” and that’s what we do in a special way at Holy Communion. We talk about one of the fruits of the Eucharist as being kinonia or communion in the Holy Spirit. Some of the translations are bad, they say things like “fellowship” with the Holy Spirit, but that brings to mind a sort of back-slapping camaraderie—but we’re not buddies with the Holy Spirit! We are in a deep and profound, mystical communion in love and faith with the Holy Spirit. This is what happens when we worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
So let this feast be a time of both the joyful praise of Our Lady and of all God has done in her and through her for us, but also a time of reflection on just what is our relationship with God: to what extent are we willing to give ourselves over to that participation in his life, allowing Him to take over our lives, and make something new out of us? St. Paul said, “He will transform these lowly bodies of ours, and make them like his glorious Body.” That’s what He did for the Mother of God; that’s what He wants to do for us. But it’s not automatic; we don’t line up in single file at the last day and receive our glorious bodies like ticket stubs at a movie theater—“here’s yours; ‘Admit One’.” No; there’s something that has to be real, a change in us, so that God can recognize Himself in us and say, “You belong to Me. My Spirit is in you, and I see that you are changed, that you have surrendered yourself to Me,” as Our Lady did.
So let us walk with her, and keep our eyes on the vision of this heavenly glory. She is already in the New Jerusalem. Just like it says in the Book of Revelation about the new Jerusalem, she is gleaming, shining, with the glory of God that already penetrates her body and soul. Everything has been accomplished in her, and we, as her children, are in this pilgrimage on our way to that glory, step by step through that ascetical, sacramental, and mystical life of the Church, of our vocation, our interior relationship with God. Our lives should move in that direction of communion, of participation, of letting Christ live in us, so that we will come one day to the gates of Heaven, to that glorious kingdom where the Mother of God and all the righteous will be standing, transformed, in this eternal, loving, living communion with God forever—which is his will for us from the very beginning. Let us realize that now, today, God is opening the gate of the Kingdom and saying, “Come, my beloved; I invite you to share this life, this joy, this transformed existence for all eternity which I, in my everlasting love, give to you.”