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)

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