Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Second Pascha, The New Eve

Solemnity of the Assumption

Today, Roman Catholics throughout the world celebrate the great Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church celebrates this feast in commemoration of its solemn belief that at the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken in soul and body to heaven, that is, to the glory of eternal life, in full and perfect communion with God. Our brothers and sisters from the Eastern Christian tradition, on the other hand, celebrate the event as the Dormition, or Falling asleep, of the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God. From ancient times, this event has been regarded by Orthodox Christians in the light of a second Pascha, or a second Easter. Thus, the Assumption finds its true glorious meaning in the revealing radiance of the Easter dawning sun.

The Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Pascha, was a pivotal turning point in the story of humanity’s salvation. With His resurrection, Jesus Christ trampled upon the gates of Hades, released its prisoners from the clutches of death and the devil, and opened for us the gates of paradise, which was originally intended for man - the crown of all creation, and which became closed to us because of the sin of pride and disobedience to God on the part of our ancestors. What man lost through Adam, he has regained through the second Adam. God Himself chose to come down to earth, became incarnate in the form of man, and once again opened to us the gates of paradise, having manifested - instead of pride - the greatest humility, instead of disobedience - complete obedience even unto death on the cross, and instead of sin He - the most pure and absolutely sinless - took upon Himself the burden of all the sins of the world. With these three qualities - humility, obedience and purity of nature - the Lord showed us the highest example of what man can be like, of what he should be like, and of what the Creator intended him to be.

However, we may well be tempted to think that only God incarnate could be such an ideal man, while a mere mortal could never attain such perfection. But to show us the error of such thinking, we have before us the Mother of God, Who is the highest example of the attainment of such perfection, and Who teaches us with Her entire life, Her death and Her Assumption that man can attain perfection precisely by means of these three qualities - humility, obedience to the will of God, and moral purity. Her Assumption is evidence and proof of such a life. Mary is indeed the first fruit of the new humanity, the creature in whom the mystery of Christ – his Incarnation, death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven – has already fully taken effect, redeeming her from death and conveying her, body and soul, to the Kingdom of immortal life. In the Assumption of Our Lady, it is these three qualities of hers which are commemorated - humility, obedience and purity, - which have elevated Her, a mere mortal, above all earthly creatures and above the entire heavenly host, which have made Her according to the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Dormition, “more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, which have made Her the Queen of heaven and earth.

As in all other feasts of Mary, we do less to honour her but in reality worship the Sovereign Lord who fulfilled his plan of salvation through the instrumentation of his humble maid, the most supremely perfect among His creatures. In this area, the Fathers of the Church have often used the method of scriptural typology to speak of Mary’s relation to Christ. Typology is a special kind of symbolism. When looking at scripture, a type can be seen as a “prophetic symbol” because all types are representations of something yet future. More specifically, a type in scripture is a person or thing in the Old Testament which foreshadows a person or thing in the New Testament. For example, the flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 6-7) is used as a type of baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. When we say that someone is a type of Christ, we are saying that a person in the Old Testament behaves in a way that corresponds to Jesus’ character or actions in the New Testament. For example, in the second reading, Paul describes Adam as a type of Christ. Though death entered this world through the first Adam’s disobedience, eternal life was made accessible again through the obedience of the second Adam, Jesus Christ himself.

The Fathers of the Church often spoke of Mary as the New Eve. St John Chrysostom, the great Doctor of the East spoke of  how the garden of Eden was closed forever to our parents through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but now the gates of Paradise, Heaven has been opened to the one who showed perfect obedience, Mary, the Mother of God and Our Beloved Mother. Where Eve listened to the deceptive voice of the serpent which caused humanity’s fall, Mary listened to the revealing and liberating Word of God and became the instrument of bringing man’s cause of salvation into the world, her son Our Lord Jesus. As a result of the fall, the serpent would constantly strike at the heel of the children of Eve but the ancient serpent, now a dragon in the Book of Revelation, will be deprived of victory over the Lady who is crowned with stars and who gives birth to the saviour who defeats the foe of the Church. Death and pain became the fate of our first mother because of the folly of sin, eternal life would be the prize won for our Blessed Mother because of her faithfulness to the will of God.

One may be tempted to ask: Isn’t the story of the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s death and resurrection sufficient? The answer is ‘Yes.’ But as the story of Adam is incomplete without mention of Eve, the story of the new Adam would be similarly inadequate without speaking of his new counterpart. If Jesus, the new Adam, is the primary cause of humanity’s salvation, then Mary, the new Eve, is the primary representative of redeemed humanity in displaying the effect of Jesus’ redemptive work. The new Eve followed the new Adam in suffering, in the Passion, and so too in definitive joy. Christ is the first fruits but his risen flesh is inseparable from that of his earthly Mother, Mary. In Mary all humanity is involved in the Assumption to God, and together with her all creation, whose groans and sufferings, St Paul tells us, are the birth-pangs of the new humanity. Thus are born the new Heaven and the new earth in which death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more

A popular iconographic depiction of Mary in the Orthodox world is the one called Theotokos Hodegetria (Greek: Οδηγήτρια) which literally means "She who shows the Way.” The icon has Mary holding the Child Jesus at her side while pointing to Him as the source of salvation for mankind. Today, the Feast of the Assumption is a celebration of the same theme. Mary’s Assumption shows the Way – it is Christ who has saved her from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb and it is Christ whose redemption has preserved her body from corruption and now leads her to heaven. The Mother leads us to her Son, the Second Pascha casts further light on the first, the fidelity, humility and purity of the New Eve reflects the perfect model of the New Adam. Mary shows us the way to heaven through her Assumption.

Today, as we raise our eyes above and through our imagination try to behold the splendour of this wondrous event of our Blessed Mother being assumed body and soul into heaven into the welcoming arms of the Holy Trinity in the presence of the angelic hosts and saintly choir, our vision looks beyond the person of Mary. The Assumption provides us with a glimpse of our future glory, our final home, the holy beatitude of heaven. Pope Benedict speaks to us of the power of this feast as one which “impels us to lift our gaze to Heaven; not to a heaven consisting of abstract ideas or even an imaginary heaven created by art, but the Heaven of true reality which is God himself. God is Heaven. He is our destination, the destination and the eternal dwelling place from which we come and for which we are striving.”

Today’s feast announces the victory of love over death. St Baldwin of Canterbury once delivered this beautiful homily on love and death.   “Death is strong: it has the power to deprive us of the gift of life. Love is strong: it has the power to restore us to the exercise of a better life. Death is strong, strong enough to despoil us of this body of ours. Love is strong, strong enough to rob death of its spoils and restore them to us. Death is strong; for no man can resist it. Love is strong; for it can triumph over death, can blunt its sting, counter its onslaught and overturn its victory. A time will come when death will be trampled underfoot; when it will be said: ‘Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your attack?” On this feast of Assumption, death is trampled beneath the foot of the woman who bore the Saviour of the world. Today, we celebrate the love of God and the love of our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, the New Eve, the Second Pascha and Hodegetria, She who shows the Way. We celebrate love’s triumph and victory over death. Today, we echo the hope of Mary in affirming the greatness of God – this is the God, who according to St. Paul, will put all his enemies including death under his feet.

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