Thinking Anew – Mary and the Christian story of redemption

Detail from Michelangelo’s Pietà. Photograph: David Lees/Corbis/Getty Images

Detail from Michelangelo’s Pietà. Photograph: David Lees/Corbis/Getty Images

 

Tomorrow is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I find it difficult to write about it. Putting words on mystery or anything that touches the divine is always problematic. But it does remind me of my first experience living in the southern German state of Bavaria. I was greatly surprised to discover that the German railways timetabled their trains as per Sunday running on August 15th. I found it interesting that in the heartland of industrial Europe, one of the world’s biggest railway companies marked a Christian feast that reminds us of how the human and divine touch one another.

Tomorrow’s feast is the celebration of the incorruptibility of Mary’s body after death and her assumption into heaven. It is the celebration of our belief that there is another dimension to us far beyond our flesh and bones. In so many ways it is an extraordinary thing to say. Before writing this column, I asked a 99-year-old man how he understands tomorrow’s feast. He believes that Mary’s body did not corrupt in the grave and went on to say that there is a perfect unity between body and spirit. He believes that the spirit is what makes the body alive and that the human soul is everlasting. That same man, who has a great sense of humour, once said to me, if there be no God, we will never find out.

Mary is – in the deepest of meaning – an ordinary human being. She is chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. In tomorrow’s Gospel, St Luke attributes to her an Old Testament prophecy in what is commonly known as the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour.” (Luke 1: 46-47) She explains how the Almighty has done great things for her. She talks about how the same God, who has called her to fulfil a special role in human history is all merciful, how he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

Are there not hints in that Gospel reading that there is more to us than flesh and bone and reason? Surely we have been called to the exquisite delights of the divine, a state of perfection that can only be found in God? Is that wishful thinking? I don’t think it is. When I visit my parents’ grave, I find myself talking out loud to them in belief that they are in some way, somehow in union with one another and God. To say any more than that is beyond my powers of comprehension let alone description.

Down through the generations philosophers and theologians have argued and counter-argued about the unity of body and soul. For the church, Mary represents symbolically how mankind is destined for life beyond the grave.

In the second reading in tomorrow’s liturgy (1 Corinthians 15: 20 - 26), St Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ has been raised from the dead. He goes on to say just as we all die in Adam, we will be brought to life in Christ. As Christ is the new Adam, similarly Mary is the new Eve.

Reflecting on this prompts one to ask the challenging question of how to maximise the ministerial and leadership roles of women in every aspect of the church. It must never be allowed to be a taboo subject. The role of women in the church, better said, their absence of a role, can alienate so many people in their search for the divine. After all Mary, next to Christ, plays the most pivotal of roles in the Christian story of redemption. But it is important to recall that the church is always in need of reform. The Second Vatican Council made it its business to place far more emphasis on the idea of the church being in need of reform rather than being a perfect society.

Tomorrow’s feast is another opportunity for us to spend more time thinking of the wonder and mystery of how the divine touches the human rather than on concentrating on titles and organisational failings that have nothing more to them than a human context. Significant up to a point – like the German Railways timetable.

St Luke recounts how Mary tells Elizabeth that all generations will call her blessed. All generations have every reason to call us blessed, all of us, women and men.

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