Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary: A Special Woman

According to the Roman Catholic lectionary, today is the Feast of the Assumption.  I can honestly say, had I been asked when I was growing up a Quaker lad, if I knew what the Feast of the Assumption was, I would have no clue.  I don’t even think I could have guessed!  By high school surely I knew what a “feast” meant.  I don’t know that Quakers ever used the language of feast.  Probably it would have been more of a secular term.  I would likely have understood it when it is paired with famine: feast or famine.

The Feast of the Assumption.  Certainly, I would not have known what the language of “assumption” meant.  I was smart enough to know the verb must be “assume.”  And I knew what it meant to “assume’ something.  That meant that something would be taken for granted.  For example, I assumed the sun would come up tomorrow and a new day would happen.  I knew there were many things in life that we could assume.  But somehow this understanding of “assume” did not fit with the language of “feast.”  So I would have been at a loss.

I knew the language of “assumption” had to have some other meaning---some nuance---that I did not grasp.  So I could have turned to the dictionary.  There we can find that “assume” can also mean to “take up” or “to be taken up.”  That was the key.  That began to make some sense for understanding this Catholic feast---the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.  This would be the day celebrating the taking up of Mary into heaven.

A little research can fill in the gaps.  This feast day does indeed celebrate the specialness of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The Feast of the Assumption teaches that Mary’s body did not decay at her death, but that her body and soul were taken up into heaven.  That teaching emerged fairly early (maybe as early as the 6th century) in the Christian Church.  Then at some point, the teaching became official doctrine of the Catholic Church. 

And this Feast also has become part of the lectionary, which means every year on this date, the story of Mary is re-told and celebrated.  When I was younger, I probably went through a couple phases.  The first phase, as I have indicated, was ignorance.  I would have had no clue what the whole thing was about.  The second phase, sadly, was probably a period in which I would have thought the whole idea of Mary’s “Assumption” to be unlikely---or worse, silly.

Over the years I have grown (hopefully!) and become more appreciative of traditions that are not mine.  Clearly, I count myself a Christian, as do Roman Catholics.  But to be Quaker and to be Catholic is not exactly the same thing.  Where there is variation, there is room for understanding and appreciation.

So what does the Feast of the Assumption of Mary mean to me?  In the first place it is easy to appreciate who Mary was as a human being and what she has come to mean to the Church---Catholic Church and other Churches.  Surely, she was an amazing woman.  Whoever she is behind the stories, the myth and the tradition, Mary was a wife, mother and tremendous caregiver.  She is special.

It is the idea of being special that makes the most sense to me.  Of course, my theology holds that every one of us---all humans---is special.  But Mary was even more special---somehow more special in ways that I cannot even articulate.  Part of the specialness of Mary was the role that God chose for her---or allowed for her.  The New Testament stories of Mary narrate the special role she played as the instrument of God.  She became the bearer of the gift of God---the very Presence of the Divinity Itself.

I prefer thinking Mary was a willing bearer of this Presence.  Mary is the epitome of the “yes” we can all say to God.  Mary had so many other options.  She could have said, “No!”  She could have said, “Are you kidding me!”  But she was open and available.  She was ready and willing.  Mary played a central role in God’s active participation in human history.  She was and is an amazing woman.

She lived her life and, then, like all humans, Mary came to the end of her life.  It was at this point that God “assumed” her into the Divine Presence.  I don’t have a clue about the details of this action.  I am content for it to be a mystery.  I realize to call it a mystery either confesses its profundity or its silliness.  I prefer it to be profound.

And perhaps it is at this point that I go beyond acceptable Catholic teaching.  I like to think that Mary’s assumption is a model and prelude to what awaits all of us.  Those of us who invite the Presence of God into our lives here and now will, at our death, be “assumed” into the Presence of God.  In this sense Mary, the special woman, becomes the model of every one of us, a special man or woman.  For that I am grateful.

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