Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury
Yet another discovery when I was looking for something else!
The web led me to an article by Peter Hebblethwaite in which he touches on Saint John XXIII Roncalli and today’s feast of the Assumption. The Assumption is not to do with a high and remote Madonna, but a flesh and blood woman who lived on this earth and died, as we all must. It is about hope.
Roncalli’s meditation on the Assumption was deeply Christological. Mary is clearly with us. She is the first of disciples and a leader in faith, and so she can be of some use to us. Roncalli concludes his meditation:
The mystery of the Assumption brings home the thought of death,
of our death,
and it diffuses within us a mood of peaceful abandonment;
it familiarizes us with and reconciles us to the idea
that the Lord will be present in our death agony,
to gather up into his hands our immortal soul.
~ John XXIII wrote that when he had only another eighteen months to live.
Theologians agree that there have been only two papal statements that fall into the infallible category – the Immaculate Conception in the Nineteenth Century and the Assumption in the Twentieth. In both case the popes claimed to be giving expression to the faith of the Church as it could be traced back to apostolic times. In neither case did they give a philosophical or theological explanation of how these dogmas should be interpreted. They simply gave voice to the faith and practice of believers. What was being said about Mary expressed the ideals for which the Christian community was striving. Believers were not asking whether Marian doctrine was to be interpreted in a particular biological sense; they knew it had nothing to do with the purpose for which the teachings were being proposed. Neither did the papal definitions answer those questions, but simply encouraged devotion through which believers expressed their desire to live the Gospel.
Because most Catholics had assumed a static and unified Church organisation, it was easy to assume that this pattern was more or less set by Christ and should never be changed. The study of history shows that it was all changing all the time, and that it looked very different at some times, so much so that we have to ask what is of the divine and necessary plan and what is simply a human attempt to organise life in community as best serves its purpose. Whatever belongs to this category can obviously be changed again when the times call for it.
There is ongoing research into collegiality and the relation between pope and bishops. When Vatican I passed the Constitution Pater Aeternus there were two issues at stake concerning the pope. His power to command and rule in dioceses other than his own, and the question of infallibility. It is not possible to assume that the pope cannot make mistakes, or even fall into heresy. Classic Canon Law says: if the pope falls into heresy he must be deposed. The law considers it most unlikely, but provision must be made for the possibility. If they had held the hot line theory they would never have considered even the possibility of this happening.
Infallibility is severely restricted; an interesting point, because some believed – including some bishops – that the Pope was always infallible and could never make a mistake in teaching Christian doctrine. The Council clearly disagreed, attributing absolute authority only to God. It declared that the Pope possesses only that infallibility which God willed to give to the Church, whenever he solemnly and officially defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church concerning faith or morals.
My mother thanked me for a postcard sent from Birmingham Art Gallery. I visited the city on Assumption Day and set foot in the gallery: I loved the Pre-Raphaelites there when I was growing up. And so did my mother during the 1930’s when money was tight, yet she would take the tram into Town to linger among the pictures.
I was glad I sought out The Star of Bethlehem by Burne Jones. It had made an impression all those years ago, but now I could sympathise with Mary, tired out of her mind, holding a fractious infant, wanting the Kings to get their business done and go, not knowing how to get her baby to be sociable.
My mind returned to the summer when I heard Assumption sermons in two French cathedrals. In Notre Dame de Paris there was a careful exposition of doctrine; in Embrun, dedicated to Our Lady of the Kings, the priest pointed to the mosaic of the Epiphany: that is Mary, he said, making her son Jesus known.
Burne Jones’s Mary is doing so to the best of her ability. This Jesus is a real human baby looking at the visitors askance. A baby who needs his mother to carry him through the next stage of life. As that French priest said, Mary was Heaven indeed when she carried him; it makes sense for her to be in Heaven still.
This carving of the Dormition of Mary was in the Church of St Maurice in Talloires, Savoy, where we were on holiday last week. Despite the poor reproduction – an old-fashioned phone camera in a dark corner – the sense of Mary as one of a community with the disciples, as part of a family, is clear. John took her into his home, indeed.
And yet, that white sheet separates her body from the living disciples around her. She is no longer among them but with her risen Son.
I read* that the English word cemetery comes from the Greek Koimisis, meaning falling asleep in death. May we all awake to new life tomorrow morning in this world, and in the world to come, when we are called. Perhaps the Feast of the Dormition or Assumption is the day we should visit our loved ones’ graves, rather than a cold day in November, when the trees are bare and life seems to be on hold. In August we can see life coming to fruition in field, orchard and hedgerow. Unless a grain of wheat shall fall …