Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unmasking Humility

Twenty Second Ordinary Sunday Year C

At the age of 76 a practically unknown Latin American cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became a world-wide household name and a flashy magazine cover star. I’m talking about the latest darling of the media and millions of Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis, named after the saint whose name has become synonymous with humility and poverty. In July this year, Pope Francis ordered that a new life sized statue of him in front of the cathedral in Buenos Aires be taken down, as he did not wish, as reported by one tabloid, “to be a celebrity.” In another version, it was said that he told the priest in charge, ‘get that thing down immediately,’ which sounds more like Pope Francis. I am personally relieved – the fiberglass statue was indeed grotesque, and would have served a better use as a scary pigeon perch than a tribute to the Pope.

But his new found celebrity status is unavoidable - especially as the statue’s removal coincides with the naming of Francis as Man of the Year by Vanity Fair’s Italian edition. The magazine gushed: ‘His first 100 days have already placed him in the category of world leaders who make history. But the revolution continues…’ The announcement was followed by a slew of celebrity endorsements. Openly gay artiste, Elton John commented: 'Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.’ The new pope’s influence popularity has been dubbed the “Francis effect”; he’s been compared to Princess Diana and called “the people’s pope.” Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be found buzzing about his latest sermon, following his tweets, or act of humility. Did you hear the pope isn’t living in the papal apartments? Did you read the report of how he rode the bus? Did you see Pope Francis pay his own hotel bill after the election? Did you notice the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics carry his own bag onto the plane for his trip to World Youth Day?

So, is he for real? Is Pope Francis truly the humble man that the world makes him out to be? Catholics within the fold of the Church are divided in their opinion. Against the massive tide of popular opinion which would give the new Pope thumbs up, there is also a substantial minority who remains unconvinced, especially the traditionalists, who views his seeming humility as actually being in the service of a cult personality. Cults of personality are not always the direct result of the will of those who become their object. Blessed John Paul II has often been accused by traditionalists as an icon of a personality cult that has obscured a proper understanding of the role of his office and hindered the appreciation of his message. Anyone who has read the teachings of this venerable Pope would certainly agree that his last intention was to become a new teeny bopper superstar. 

Likewise, Pope Francis is constantly being compared with his predecessors. Recently, side-by-side comparisons of the papal styles of Popes Francis and Benedict have become popular across the internet. Often, in heaping praises on the new pope, one tends to cast odium on his predecessors. Ironically, most people who enjoy juxtaposing the popes fail to recognise that comparisons of their dress style or anything else for that matter is tripe & even unfair. What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that these signs of humility be used to belittle his predecessors and their legacy. I am tired of hearing it implied that the present Pope’s simplicity and humility are in contrast to the supposed arrogance and luxurious lifestyle of his predecessors. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to Benedict’s humility several times and some of these supposed differences are mere myths. For example, Pope Francis forsook the papal apartments not because he wished to avoid the comforts of luxury (the papal apartments is anything but luxurious), but to avoid isolation. It’s interesting to note that the first pope who had decided to move into the papal apartments was Pope St Pius X, a pope known for his frugality and simplicity.  St Pius X once remarked, “I have been born poor, I have lived poor, and I hope to die poor!” Ironically, none of the critics noted that Pope Benedict displayed astounding humility in being the first Pope in 600 years to abdicate and to retire to a monastery, hidden from the intrusive eyes of the world. But Pope Francis didn’t miss this and paid tribute to Benedict in these words: “You cannot imagine the humility and wisdom of the Man”

The problem with the world today, a malady which has also infected Catholics from both sides of the political divide, is that we have confused the office of the papacy with the trappings of a cult of personality. Thus for many, the attraction to our current Pope has less to do with the actual virtue of humility than it has to do with the dynamics of a personality cult that has grown around this man, and even around his predecessors. You can argue that it’s wonderful Pope Francis is attracting people to the faith that otherwise would not be attracted to it. And it is. My worry; however, is those very same people will very quickly become disenchanted with the Pope once they realise he’s not just all lover of the poor and Mr. Simplicity. He’s not going to bring about the sweeping ‘reforms’ the progressives seem to generally lobby for. That’s why all this media focus on Francis’ humility seems disingenuous. The irony is that the cultic obsession with the Pope’s display of humility may actually be a distraction from the actual virtue. It’s not the Holy Father whose actions I question, because I truly believe he’s 100% genuine, it’s the intentions of the media and those who embrace him solely for his acts of public humility. It’s not the pope, it’s the press and the people who want to use the Pope’s displays of humility for changing the Church into what they believe She should be. That is what is troubling.

Today’s readings exalt the virtue of humility, not the superficial type that we have seen above, but the real hard type that comes with a hard-line Jesus and a tough form of Christianity. We all know that humility is a Christian virtue but many are often confused as to its meaning. Many people believe humility means self-denigration; in other words, being very critical of oneself, one’s own talents and achievements. The irony is this: whenever we put ourselves down, we actually expect to receive more praises for our achievements. Such humility is undeniably false humility and false humility is a mask for pride. The parable in today’s gospel is not just a lesson for a disguised narcissist to present a false front of self-effacement but rather speaks of every man’s relationship with God, the foundation of true humility. The context of the parable is that of the Pharisees expected to take the best seats for their supposed righteousness and piety, but like the outcast they have to learn that salvation has be accepted as an unmerited gift. Like the Pharisees, sometimes, many want to take the place of God and even act like God. The opposite of humility is the usurpation of the power and authority of God.

Thus, the parable seeks to teach us that humility means recognising one’s total dependence on God. The point of the parable is not that one should take the last place, feigning or with a false sense of humility, in order that he might be honoured. This is not what Jesus is saying. Christian humility doesn’t call one to demean oneself for its own sake. It is a call to recognise one’s total dependence on God and leaves the matter of rank and reward completely to him. The humble man finds favour with the Lord, not because it is a form of reward, but because the humble man allows God to do what he himself cannot do. The humble man veils himself so that the glory of God may be revealed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines humility as “the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good”  (CCC 2559). Therefore, man is proud when he suggests that he knows better than God (or his Church).  Or that he can achieve and succeed on his own merits.  Or that he, by his own efforts, can reconcile himself with God for sins committed.  Or that he can go through his day without being in His presence.

Christianity is about Jesus Christ. He is at the centre of God’s salvation. Christianity is about following him and declaring our allegiance to him. It is making Christ known and not just self-promotion. Christianity is not about us. It has something wonderful to say to us, but it is not first and foremost about us. It is not man-centred but God-centred and Christ-centred. This is foundational and basic to the practice of the virtue of humility. This is precisely what is so wrong with the cult of personality - it places man on the pedestal and makes him larger than life, in fact so large as to eclipse God.

The Church and its leaders are called to be witnesses to authentic humility and by doing so give service to the cult of God. The self-effacing attitude taught by Jesus in today’s gospel calls us to abdicate our positions of honour so that God may be the sole object of reverence and worship. To the extent that the cult of personality surrounding the modern papacy has been a dangerous thing—and in fact, on occasion distracted the faithful from the substance of the faith—the story of the statue of Pope Francis is a good sign. It indicates the Holy Father's desire that the faithful focus on the message, not on the man; that we look beyond questions of personal style to the substance of the faith, shared and preached by all of the successors of Saint Peter. In a symbolic way, the Pope takes man off the pedestal in order to steer away from the media generated cult of personality, away from the dotting fans, in order that we may refocus once again on the edifice of our faith built and raised in honour of the one Sovereign God. And that, my friends, is humility.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hard-Line Christianity

Twenty First Ordinary Sunday Year C

In last week’s gospel, we witness a hard-line Jesus telling us that he is setting the world ablaze and bringing division, division between those who will stand with him and those who choose to stand against him (even when they think they are merely standing on the sidelines). There’s going to be no easing up or softening of this radical challenge to make our option known. This week he reminds us of the tough kind of Christianity required of his disciples. He also takes a long hard hit at the false assurance of salvation – the belief that salvation is guaranteed and that hell is purely a myth, at least for Christians.

Many Christians actually believe that they are pretty good Christians since they have embraced the faith, but their version is just treacle—a syrupy version of hard-edged faith. The core teaching of this soft version of Christianity is the gospel of nice or ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’, as one author coins it. Instead of a suffering Christ on the cross, the jovial image of Santa Claus or even a cuddly Care Bear has taken over as potent symbols of this new religion. The Gospel of niceness has seeped into our own Christian culture and it has become indiscernible from the real thing. We are often too nice to say no, to question others opinions, to critique others decisions or to point out the obvious. We let people get away with stuff that is blatantly incorrect or wrong-headed, immoral or illegal, ill mannered or self-centered – we make excuses by being nice about it. In such a religious system, the following words and concepts are taboo and have been expunged from our vocabulary – sin, moral evil, and of course, the definitive ‘hell’! ‘A God who is the personification of niceness will never tolerate hell!’ Political correctness in all its forms is the gospel of niceness in extremis.

Here are some core beliefs of this new religion:
1.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.
2.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
3.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
4.      Since no one is really bad, and sin doesn’t really exist except in neurotic guilt and God is so nice and good, everyone gets to go to heaven. Yahoo!!

The ‘narrow door’ which Jesus speaks off flies in the face of the core tenets of the Gospel of Nice and Soft Christianity. It implies that Christianity is not a ‘free for all’ ideology. It implies that there are boundaries, there are rigid demands, there are consequences to our actions, that truly living according to the Christian lifestyle would mean that one must be open to admonishment. It suggests that one should not take salvation for granted and that damnation is very real for those who choose not to go through the ‘narrow door.’ Jesus knew that the nice people would get him and put him on the cross – that what he was saying was not nice – it would upset the ruling powers and authorities and at some point he would be crucified. He knew what would happen if he was not nice – sanitised – acceptable and appropriate. He goes to the cross not because he was nice, but because he loved. Because he said what had to be said and called for people to be counter-cultural – to stand up and to say this is not right.

In the final analysis, the gospel of niceness won’t do. It isn’t salvific. It isn’t Jesus’ message. It isn’t the Kingdom. In other words, it’s a false idol. Therefore, we have to dump our idols, even when they’re nice and make us feel good about ourselves – the gospel of ‘shiok sendiri’. Admit it; part of the appeal of a gospel of niceness is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. It often translates into the gospel of comfort and convenience – we know that we have subscribed to it when we complain about the uncomfortable pews, the heat in the Church, the inconvenience of parking and of course, the long services and homilies. If the story is that niceness is the solution, then we’ve missed the point. Niceness won’t save you. Comfort and convenience won’t save you. In fact, the only thing the easy and soft gospel of niceness will do is to ease you into hell. You won’t know what hit you till it’s too late. On the other hand, the life, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of a crucified Christ will be our salvation. Anything else is an idol and a false gospel.

The Gospel of Christ, paid by his own blood on the cross is demanding. It demands that we make the ultimate sacrifice by turning our backs on wealth, power and popularity, comfort and convenience, the false gods that have become the defining elements in our lives. It demands that we burn our bridges when we have resolved to follow Jesus on the road to Calvary. It demands that store treasures in heaven where it cannot be stolen or suffer the ravages of destruction. It demands that we avoid seeking honour among men but strive to become rich in the sight of God. It demands passage through the narrow door. Jesus wasn’t Mr Nice, neither was he Mr Soft. The same Jesus who preached compassion is the same Jesus who publicly embarrassed his nemeses (the Pharisees) by calling them “a bunch of snakes” in front of a large crowd of people. The same Jesus who said, in a particular and oft-misunderstood context, that we ought to “turn the other cheek” is the same Jesus who made a royal mess out of the temple by taking a whip to a bunch of moneychangers. The same Jesus whom we fondly depict in art as the gentle Good Shepherd, is also the Heavenly Judge who will not blink an eye when separating the sheep from the goats. The same Jesus who announces that men from all four corners of the earth will be taking their places in the heavenly feast also declares that some will suffer the ‘weeping and grinding of teeth.’

Does that sound like a cuddly Jesus who turns a blind eye to sin? I don’t think so. It’s the real Jesus, the tough Jesus, the Jesus who saves! Jesus didn’t float on down to planet earth like a deflating balloon.  He dropped down like an atomic bomb, and his very presence was a provocation. Many men and women throughout the history of Christianity, have been set aflame with the explosive message of Christ. Many have even followed their Lord and Master to the cross by accepting the glory of martyrdom. We can be sure of this. Christianity wasn’t something ‘nice’ or ‘soft’ or even ‘convenient’ for them. Christianity to them was life. And they were prepared to give up everything else, including their mortal lives, to defend this.

I would like to share with you a long quote from a 19th century Christian author and cleric of the Church of Scotland, Horatius Bonar, who prophetically forewarns our present generation of the dangers of Soft Christianity and reminds us of the need to be tough Christians.

“For there is some danger of falling into a soft and effeminate Christianity, under the plea of a lofty and ethereal theology. Christianity was born for endurance...It walks with firm step and erect frame; it is kindly, but firm; it is gentle, but honest; it is calm, but not facile; obliging, but not imbecile; decided, but not churlish. It does not fear to speak the stern word of condemnation against error, nor to raise its voice against surrounding evils, under the pretext that it is not of this world. It does not shrink from giving honest reproof lest it come under the charge of displaying an unchristian spirit. It calls sin 'sin,' on whomsoever it is found … The religion of both Old and New Testaments is marked by fervent outspoken testimonies against evil. To speak smooth things in such a case may be sentimentalism, but it is not Christianity. It is a betrayal of the cause of truth and righteousness. If anyone should be frank, manly, honest, cheerful (I do not say blunt or rude, for a Christian must be courteous and polite), it is he who has tasted that the Lord is gracious, and is looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God.

I know that charity covereth a multitude of sins; but it does not call evil good, because a good man has done it; it does not excuse inconsistencies, because the inconsistent brother has a high name and a fervent spirit. Crookedness and worldliness are still crookedness and worldliness, though exhibited in one who seems to have reached no common height of attainment.”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Make a Stand

Twentieth Ordinary Sunday Year C

A few years ago, I was attending a concluding conference of a programme organised by an interfaith dialogue institute in the United States. Ironically (and you’ll come to appreciate the irony shortly), this took place on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. The ‘valedictorian’ chosen for the closing address was a fellow Catholic priest from a different country. It became obvious why he was the clear choice; his views were in tandem with those of the sponsoring institute. I’ve often listened to disparaging remarks regarding the Catholic Church and its teachings and have moved beyond the initial indignation, but I must admit that this address set new standards ad nauseum; especially, as it came from an ordained Catholic priest in a reputable Catholic university.

The whole address, which was originally feted as something to do with peace-building, interfaith dialogue and stuff-like-that degenerated into a sustained attack on the Catholic faith, covering a whole spectrum of topics: from its anachronistic grip on Tradition, to its misogynistic discrimination of women, and finally to its tolerance of intolerant and supposedly violent teachings and scriptures. To my amusement and the horror of the local faculty, the speaker announced at the end that he was going to take a firm stand against violence and bigotry by launching a crusade to revamp the whole body of Catholic teaching and undertaking a re-editing of sacred scripture to remove all offending texts, including the one we just heard today. Of course, no one took the claim seriously. An Indonesian Muslim participant, who sat beside me during the lecture, turned to me and asked a question which must have been playing on everyone’s mind: “Is he a Catholic?”

The remarks which I heard in this address were not unusual or isolated. They have been around for some time. Today you can get away with saying anything disrespectful, horrifying, insulting, or just outright slanderous about the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith and get away with it. But what seems more shocking is that we are witnessing the emergence of more zealous critics within the ranks of the Church. In fact, negative assessment of all things Catholic does not necessarily emanate from the secular media alone or the likes of Richard Dawkins. Many ‘Catholic’ institutions, including seminaries and clerics, including high-standing ones, are doing a pretty good job at using the Church as a convenient punching bag. Today, being Catholic whilst being anti-Catholic doesn’t seem to be much of a contradiction. In fact, it has become trendy to be anti-establishment or anti-Catholic! By doing so, one feels more ‘alike’ the world than ‘apart’ from it.

The reason for such an unholy alliance is simple: traditional Catholicism and religion is seen as the real cause for violence and wars in the world and thus needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘eradicated.’ In one online discussion, I lifted the following criticism, which is quite characteristic of others: “Religion is the harbinger of ignorance and bigotry, and faith's greatest enemy is reason. It also instils nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and it encourages the intervention and judgment of society on the private individual.” If you were to ask for a proof text to substantiate the above allegations, you would most likely get a quotation from today’s gospel, citing that Jesus, himself, whom Christians claim to be the Prince of Peace, personally advocated violence and in today’s gospel, announces his real agenda; that he is here to ‘bring fire to the earth’ and division, not peace. The Matthean version is more incendiary, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring the sword’ (Matt 10:34).

To cite the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, such as ‘bring fire to the earth’ or ‘I am here to bring division’, as the cause of all the violence and hatred we see in the world is ludicrous. Jesus is not making some broad statement about his ultimate purpose. Rather, he is pointing to a very real result of his kingdom proclamation. The gospel will effect divisions because Jesus confronts us with the truth. He is "the truth" (John 14:6) and we have to respond. Our response will ultimately be the point of division. We can either accept the Truth or reject ‘him’. If we try to ignore, that too is a form of rejection. As Jesus announced the kingdom of God, calling for primary allegiance, this will inevitably cause splits and create rifts between different camps, those who will stand with him in the Kingdom, and those who refuse to abide with him or even choose to stand against the Kingdom. The family, the traditional central institution that provides protection and social identity, must also give way to this new relationship with Christ. So, even though the kingdom of God ultimately establishes God’s peace on earth, the advance of the kingdom brings division.

The fiery message of this passage is equally crucial to our times. The challenge thrown by Jesus is contrary to many of the prevalent values of our age, the two principal ones being inclusiveness and moral relativity. As a result of this obsession with "inclusiveness," we are told that we should accept "alternative lifestyles", accept all sorts of behaviour that used to be considered unacceptable. The watchword is "tolerance". Some have almost made a god of tolerance. Yet we find these same people can be quite intolerant of any viewpoint that does not tolerate every kind of behaviour. Closely related to this teaching of tolerance is the concept of moral relativity, which illogically argues that there are no moral absolutes, except its own claim to be absolute. We must, however, note that Truth is indeed intolerant but its intolerance is directed to lies and sin which seek to hide under the cover of euphemisms. We must remember that Jesus was never tolerant of evil. In the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), he reached out to the sinner in love, but he hated sin. Compassion and acceptance of the sinner never meant tolerance of their behaviour. It meant exhorting them to cease that sort of behaviour. Jesus drew very sharp lines between what was good and what was evil, what was moral and what was immoral, lines which our modern society attempts to blur. When we blur the line between good and evil, we call destruction upon ourselves.

This unhappy truth does not, of course, imply that followers of Jesus are to seek conflict or to try to split up families or bring division. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that we are to be peacemakers and “to live in peace with each other” (Matt. 5:9; Mark 9:50). St Paul adds: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). But making peace is not the same as making nice. Sometimes, our efforts to bring genuine peace to a situation or a relationship will, in fact, lead to conflict. Neither, does making peace mean compromising the Truth. Quite often the gospel demands exposing the lie that underlies our culture and society.

So, today, Jesus draws the lines and calls us to make a stand. Jesus contrasted his way to the way of the world quite emphatically: “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). I’m reminded of the meditation of the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius believed that there is a battle between good and evil going on in the world and in our hearts. It is important that we are aware of this battle. All disciples have to choose where we are going to stand—with Jesus or with the world. Many of us, well-intentioned Catholics, may honestly believe that we are standing with Christ but unknowingly aligning ourselves with the world’s standard. Our collusion with the world may sometimes be benign and subtle. When we are afraid to witness to the values of the Kingdom with the excuse that we wish to be peaceful and respectful, that we do not wish to offend anyone, we are actually standing out of line, within the firing range of enemy territory. When we try to be friendly with the world, we may make the fatal mistake of being an unwitting Trojan horse within our own ranks – thus the oxymoron of a committed Catholic who’s anti-Catholic. When the lines are blurred, our benign collusion may actually be a path to succumb to the darkness. We begin to buy into the lies of the world and after a while become advocates of ideologies that emerge from the world, to the extent of treating them as divinely inspired theological doctrines.

I just recently read the meditation by the Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech given to the College of Cardinal Electors just before they sealed the Enclave that had elected our new Pope Francis. In his reflection, the eminent and erudite Cardinal presented several points of what he believed Christ would want of his Church. Any reader would clearly agree that this is not the soft fluffy version of the gospel, heavily edited by the tools and standards of political correctness. On the contrary, it unequivocally presents and states the real hard Truth, the kind of Truth that demands a response, a decision, a Truth that will evoke division between those who choose to stand with Christ or with the world. I guess anything fit for an audience like the princely College of Electors should be fit for us lowly folk. I would like to share the first point he made, which thus acts as a foundation for the rest: “After his resurrection Jesus sent the apostles into the whole world to make disciples of all peoples and baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 29:19). The Church does this by presenting the Gospel without compromise, without diluting the word… When one descends to compromises with the Gospel one empties it of its “dynamis,” (power) as if one were to remove the explosive from a hand grenade.” Pow! As we draw closer to Christ and his gospel, the lines are being more sharply drawn between good and evil, between truth and falsity, between faithful orthodoxy and disobedient dissent, between the one true God and false gods. We must choose. We must make our stand. There is no middle ground.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Earth is Wedded to Heaven

Assumption 2013

One of my favourite Marian shrines is the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. For those who know anything about my aesthetical taste, would realise that this attraction has nothing to do with the modern two storey edifice that stands over the site nor does it lie with the gallery of Marian art from various nations adorning the upper level of the church, some bordering on the grotesque (no hint as to which one best fits the description). What really captivated me is the nondescript sunken grotto located on the first level of the building, which tradition says is the cave home of the Blessed Virgin Mary and where the event of the Annunciation was said to have taken place. The atrium that connects both levels of the building admits a natural light from the upper level which casts its rays upon this primitive but serene sacred space below, thus adorning it with an almost ethereal heavenly ambience.

In this sacred space, one can actually sense the words found in John’ Prologue and etched above the fa├žade of the entrance to the basilica, come alive: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  The inter-play of light and darkness, the old and new, the natural and man-made structures immediately helped me recall the familiar words of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation, sung at every Easter Vigil: “heaven is wedded to earth.” St Augustine, using the eschatological bridal imagery of scriptures, speaks of the event of the Annunciation in this fashion: “The Word is wedded to flesh, and the bridal chamber of this exalted marriage is your womb.”

If the event of the Annunciation speaks of the betrothal and wedding, the beginning of our story of salvation, then the Feast which we celebrate today must certainly be its consummation, its culmination as it were. The saintly Pope Pius XII in the bull Munificentissimus Deus in the year 1950 defined the dogma of the Assumption in these words, “The immaculate mother of God when the course of her earthly life was run was assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory."  It is most appropriate that the Church should use the wedding music of the Psalter in the Morning Prayer on the day of the Assumption where she invites us to "see the beauty of the daughter of Jerusalem, who ascended to heaven like the rising sun at dawn." "Whither goest thou, bright as the morn?" She "is taken up into the bridal chamber of heaven, where the King of Kings sits on his starry throne."

The wedding theme runs through the entire body of sacred scriptures. In the Old Testament, God the Father made a covenant, or we could say a “marriage” between himself and his bride, Israel. This covenant is summed up in the oft repeated formula, in words that have marital undertones: ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God.’ The entire Bible may thus be described in the terms of the following dynamics – God’s faithfulness in the face of humanity’s repeated infidelity. From the beginning, God the Father had a plan to send his own Son, the depository of the new Covenant, the New Testament. The unthinkable happened with the Incarnation; Jesus took upon himself our human flesh. God “married” His divinity with humanity in the Incarnation. This union of the human and divine reveal to us the plan that God had from the beginning of time to allow us to share in his own divine life. This is thus announced in the song of Mary, the Magnificat, we heard in today’s gospel. The history of humanity in the ancient covenant, and the vicissitudes of Israel, the people of the covenant, are recapitulated in Mary, the servant of the Lord. Within this hymn, all of past history of salvation is synthesised and future history is anticipated, and both are centred on Jesus, the Eternal Son of God now born of a human mother, Mary.

In this song, we recognise that Mary is more than the girl from Nazareth, just as her son was more than the carpenter’s scion. She sings for Israel, for the whole messianic community. She is not only the first Christian and most preeminent member of the Church, she is also a model of the Church, a paradigm for what God wills to accomplish in and through the Church. According to the Second Vatican Council, Mary is “the image and the first-flowering of the Church as she is to be perfected in the world to come” and “a sign of sure hope and solace for the pilgrim People of God.” (LG 68). Mary’s assumption suggests the future that is open to every human: the entry into glory through and after a life of walking with God. Just like Mary, every person who travels with God will, in spite of all earthly troubles, be taken up to a place of rest and sanctity in the wilderness. Pope Paul VI tells us that the Assumption "is a feast that set before the eyes of the Church and all mankind the image and consoling proof of the fulfilment of their final hope." In her Assumption, Mary manifests the fullness of redemption, and appears as the "spotless image" of the Church responding in joy to the invitation of the Bridegroom Christ, himself the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Cor 15:20)

Ultimately, the Church awaits the fulfilment of this union in heaven. The book of Revelation refers to this as the “wedding feast of the Lamb.”  In the visions of St John sees that “the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” The Lamb is Christ, who has sacrificed himself as the unblemished lamb on the cross and frees us from our sins. Jesus offers his life up for his bride, the Church. But, Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection is what makes us, the Bride, beautiful. Christ merits our freedom from sin and with it the capacity to be united with God in a union of love for all eternity.

Finally, this feast announces not only the anticipated wedding of the Church, the Bride of Christ, to her Divine Bridegroom, but also the marriage of the entire Universe to its Creator. The Assumption epitomises the reconciliation of the material and spiritual world, as the human Mary enters "body and soul to heavenly glory." Many people want to believe that Catholicism denies the body or sees it as evil. With this feast, we profess the opposite and for many the unexpected. God wishes to save the whole human person body and soul. His grace is for the whole person, body and soul. The liturgy commands the attention of our bodies as well as our souls as we sit, kneel, stand, and extend our hands to receive the sacred mystery of not only the Soul and Divinity of Christ, but most certainly and truly his Body and Blood as well. In Mary, in the Incarnation of her Son, in her Assumption, we see the truth of what the priest and the whole Church proclaims: “heaven is wedded to earth.”

Today we contemplate in Mary, our Mother, this total glorification of our humanity. That which has been wholly realised in her, will be realised for us at the end of time. Every day, we draw ever closer to reality she reveals in her Assumption. We look to the day where earth will indeed be wedded to heaven. In the Eucharist, we already have a taste of this heavenly wedding feast. In the meantime, as Pope Paul VI remind us in his beautiful treatise on Marian Devotion, Marialis Cultus, we look to our blessed Mother as “a sign of sure hope and solace for the pilgrim People of God.”. "The Blessed Virgin Mary offers a calm vision and a reassuring word to modern man, torn as he often is between anguish and hope, defeated by the sense of his own limitations and assailed by limitless aspirations, troubled in his mind and divided in his heart, uncertain before the riddle of death, oppressed by loneliness while yearning for fellowship, a prey to boredom and disgust. She (the woman clothed with the sun, crowned with the stars, enthroned on the moon, who defeats the beastly dragon, tormentor of humanity) shows forth the victory of hope over anguish, of fellowship over solitude, of peace over anxiety, of joy and beauty over boredom and disgust, of eternal vision over earthly ones, of life over death." (MC 57)