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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
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As you listened to the scriptures today, you may have wondered why there was no mention of the feast we celebrate today, the Assumption of Mary into heaven. That is because there is nothing in scripture about this event. But celebrating the assumption of Mary is part of our Catholic tradition that goes right back to the beginning of the community of the church.
Today's scriptures give us some insights into the life of Mary and what she means to us in our theological tradition.
Perhaps we should think about what we mean by the "assumption of Mary," because it has to do with the death of every one of us. So it is a moment for us to reflect on our dying. One important thing to realize is that when we die and go to heaven to be with God, it will be the same for us as it was for Mary. With one difference: Our bodies are usually placed in the ground or cremated and become corrupt. Mary's body never went through that period of corruption.
When we die, as we say in the preface of the Mass for funerals, "Life has changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven." We are in heaven as whole persons. We must not think, as I am afraid we often do because of the images we have, that somehow, at some point, our bodies are going to come up out of the ground and be reunited with our spirits. It doesn't happen that way.
As human persons we are spiritual and material, body and soul. But when we die, we are transformed. Paul spoke about this in the second lesson today, how all of us share in what happened to Jesus when he overcame death. The first fruits of the resurrection are in Jesus, but all of us share in those fruits and when we die, we are transformed in some extraordinary way. Later on in that letter to the church of Corinth, Paul tries to speak about what he calls "our spiritual bodies." That seems to be a contradiction -- that our bodies, our material bodies, can be spiritualized. Each of us is transformed through death into fullness of life with God. It is hard for us to get a grasp on what this means.
I read a book very recently called Father Joe*. It is about a Benedictine monk who lived in a very remote monastery on an island off the English coast. Fr. Joe was a person who, in his life as a monk -- he lived 60-some years in the monastic life -- had a very deep experience of the love of God in his life. And he taught hundreds and hundreds of other people about how God is a God of love. Always. In every instance. God is never there to destroy us or punish us, Fr. Joe taught. God is always calling us forth into love.
The person who wrote the book was one of the people Fr. Joe had helped. The author visited Fr. Joe just before he died, and he wondered if Fr. Joe was afraid. "Are you afraid of what's coming?" The author was thinking of his own sinful life, and he was very afraid of death. Fr. Joe told him:
I'm a little frightened, perhaps. We always are, aren't we, when we have to open a door that has always been there, but we've never opened? Am I frightened by my sins? No. I am frightened by the immensity of what lies beyond the door. A God of love. Infinite. Eternal. How could I ever be worthy of that? We are nothing, are we, compared to the perfection of what comes next. Death makes failures of us all.
Death, Fr. Joe is saying, is an immense experience that we can barely imagine -- walking through that door into the everlasting love of God. We will feel diminished when we experience how paltry and little were our attempts to love when we experience this God who is love. That is what happens when we die. We walk through the door, and we're transformed fully into love and life forever.
That is what happened to Mary, and that is what will happen to us. Our bodies may be corrupted, but each of us, individually, the persons we are, will go through that door and be transformed and know, in a way that we can only barely imagine now, what it is to love and what love is. And what God is, who is love.
So that is the first thing that I think this Feast of the Assumption calls us to reflect on. The scriptures today also offer us some insights into how we see and understand Mary, and her relationship to us, and to the church. Probably, the most important thing about Mary is that she is a disciple of Jesus. She is in fact a model disciple of Jesus, one whom we try to become like so we can be, as fully as possible, disciples of Jesus Christ.
The first thing you notice about Mary in today's lesson from the Gospel is how she reached out to another person. An elderly relative, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant and needed some assistance, so Mary went to her. That was rather bold. It was unusual for a woman to travel like that in ancient Palestine. But she went to visit Elizabeth, to serve her elderly relative, and that is what a disciple of Jesus would do. A disciple was always to be reaching out to assist another person, to show love and care and concern.
"Disciple" means "a learner" and "a listener." When you look in the scriptures, you discover that this is how Mary is often described, as one who listens. Two or three times in the early part of Luke's Gospel, when she becomes the Mother of God and then gives birth to Jesus, Luke says she "pondered all these things in her heart." She tried to listen to God at work within her, which is what a disciple does. As disciples, we spend time trying to listen to how God is working within us, what God is asking of each of us, where God is leading us.
The disciple not only hears the word of God but does it. You may remember that time when Jesus was preaching and people said, "Your mother and your family are here. They want to see you." Instead of stopping and running to see, Jesus said, "Who are my mother, my brothers and sisters?" He said, "It is those who hear the word of God and do it." Mary, of course, was number one in that -- hearing the word of God and doing it.
That is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. As we look in scripture and try to learn how to be disciples, we can look at the example of Mary.
One other thing comes from the scriptures today that I think is very important. Mary proclaims a joyful message: "My soul proclaims the greatness of God." It is like when we say, "God is good all the time." Mary is saying today, "God is so good." That is an important message to hear -- and to take to heart and hang on to.
Mary said this at a time when she was experiencing oppression. She was part of the Jewish people, and they were occupied by the Roman army. It was a harsh, violent occupation. People were treated with disdain and contempt and were brutalized many times. It was a terrible, terrible thing, and yet Mary, in the midst of all of that, could say, "My soul proclaims the greatness of God."
She went on to proclaim how God lifts up the lowly and sets free the oppressed. She was confident in God. If you look carefully at the proclamation that she made, you realize -- and the scripture scholars point this out -- that Mary is doing what other women in the scriptures have done. Read the book of Judith and you find a marvelous hymn by Judith. Through her instrumentality, the terrible tyrant Holofernes and the Assyrian army were overcome. God freed the people from that tyranny. Go back further in scripture and read about the Jewish people being freed from the tyranny of Egypt. After being freed, and as they were ready to enter the promised land, the prophetess Miriam, the sister of Aaron, proclaimed a message of joy, hope and triumph: for God has raised up the lowly and put down the arrogant and proud. God is always at work in our world. That is the message of the hymns.
I thought about that this morning as I was reading the newspaper. It seemed to me that everything in the paper today was bad news. Usually you will see some good news in the paper, but this morning it all seemed bad. There were stories about the terrible destruction in Florida with the hurricane: people killed, billions of dollars of damage in property. Bad news. There was a story about Burundi, where a Hutu army raided a refugee camp and massacred people. You could read about Sudan, Iraq or Afghanistan. It was bad news everywhere.
We need a message like Mary's: "God is still at work, even in the midst of all of this. God is good all the time. We can proclaim the goodness of God who raises up the poor and the lowly, who sets free the oppressed." God will do that for us. The bad news will be transformed, and God will make good things happen.
So Mary gives us a spirit of hope and joy even in the midst of the difficulties we face in our world and in our own personal lives. God is present to lift us up and to give us new life. Ultimately God will welcome us into the fullness of life in heaven, where we will be transformed into that life of God who is love, and where we live with that joy, love and peace, forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Editor's Note: NCR reviewed Father Joe in its July 30, 2004 issue. To read the review online, follow this link: A sinner and a saintly monk.
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