Philip Barnes recalls the Assumption of Our Lady
The Assumption is really a feast of the Resurrection – it speaks of the power of the Risen Christ reaching into Our Lady’s life. When he describes the resurrection life, St Paul uses harvest imagery: he says that Christ rises from the dead as the first-fruits of those who have died. All will be made alive in Christ, says Paul: Christ the first fruits, then those who belong to him. (1 Cor 15.20,23)
To understand what Paul means by this, we need to know that the festival of the first-fruits was the start of the Harvest celebrations in Jewish tradition. The first of the corn, the first produce of the land, was offered to God as an act of thanksgiving, as if to say “there’s more on the way”. It was a declaration of expectant hope.
It wasn’t just a Jewish custom. For centuries in this country mid-August was known as Lammastide, when the first corn that had been harvested was brought to church in celebration that the beginning of a good harvest had been made, and to ask for a blessing on the ingathering that was still to come.
At the Assumption we celebrate that Mary is a part of the first-fruits of the resurrection life. At the end of her earthly existence she is brought, body and soul, into God’s realm: that heavenly dwelling which, as this feast proclaims, is a spatial reality as concrete as our own; and, as scripture tells us, an additional dimension alongside our own.
Mary comes to the Father’s house, to that eternal life that we call Paradise, as part of the first-fruits of the resurrection harvest. She enters into the glory of heaven as the sign that there are more to come, and that this is the destiny of those who are joined to her Son in faith and love.
The glory of the Assumption tells us that life is not a senseless wandering, but a pilgrimage that leads us to the house of the Father, who waits for us in love. As we pass through life we are given, in Mary assumed into heaven, what Pope Emeritus Benedict has described as “a sign of consolation and a sure hope”.
What, then, are we to make of this early harvest festival, this feast of resurrection first-fruits? It tells us first that we must not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope. At the Assumption we celebrate a gift from God, which carries us forward with our eyes fixed on heaven. Mary shows us that we are made for glory, and eternal life will be ours.
Secondly, it tells us that this flesh and blood of ours matters. Our bodies are not some temporary irritation that we will leave behind when we live in heaven; they are part of how we will live in heaven. Our post-resurrection bodies may be different from the ones we have now; but they will still be our bodies.
We must learn to see in our bodies an intimation of future resurrected life; and so we must honour human life, the human body from the cradle to the grave, and never do anything that wounds the image of God in another. Our bodies are made for glory, and they are how we will be with one another again in the Lord.
The divine glory that dwells in Mary is the same glory of that love shown in its fullness on the Cross, and it exalts her as it no less exalts us. This was Mary’s life; this is our life now, and our life to come – a life of transforming grace that changes us from glory into glory. No wonder we celebrate!
The Revd Philip Barnes is Acting Priest Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham