A funny thing happened to Arthur Middleton on a holiday in Hong Kong

THEOLOGICAL STUDENTS are usually advised never to begin a sermon with the words, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to church …”. The statement betrays the fact that the sermon has been prepared on the way to church and is only half-cooked, maybe not cooked at all. However, let me begin by saying “A funny thing happened to me …”, but it was not on the way to church and it happened on 24th July, 1995. It happened thousands of miles away as I travelled in a bus on a day tour of the mainland territories of Hong Kong. As we approached the Buddhist Bamboo Forest Monastery, the courier began to tell us about the Goddess of Mercy, of whom I knew, and whose picture I had taken the previous week.

The Courier’s Point

He pointed out that this Goddess of Mercy was a living illustration of the difference between Buddhism and other religions. She had once been human but because of her exemplary lifestyle she had been made a goddess and become an example for all to follow. In no other religion he said could that happen, a human become one of the gods. That is true – but he knew nothing, it seemed, of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century who said “God has become man, that man might become god”, echoing Bishop Irenaeus before him who said that the glory of God was a man living fully. Both of them echo St. John, who said of Christ, that to those who believe in Him he gives power to become Sons of God, ”… born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”. We become in the words of St. Peter, “partakers of the divine nature”, or, as St. Maximos the Confessor put it, “We remain creatures while becoming God by grace”.

These thoughts raced through my mind and started me thinking, when a recorded commentary began, the commentator’s English voice sounding rather like that of the former newscaster Jan Leeming. She then said, to my horror, “The place of the Goddess of Mercy in Buddhism is the same as the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism.” Really ? thought I… and so my thoughts began to cook.

The Dormition

These thoughts are appropriate for August as the Church is about to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, or, The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Where does what the Church Universal celebrates on 15th August relate to this funny thing that happened to me all those thousands of miles away? Let me try and explain.

Consider first, the history of our salvation. It is focussed on holy Persons and Events. The dominant Person is that of Our Lord, whom we commemorate in the great festivals of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Holy Week and Eastertide. Intimately associated with these festivals are those of the Mother of God, her Conception and Nativity, Entry into the Temple, Annunciation and the Falling Asleep. Then follow the festivals of the Apostles and Saints.

All these festivals highlight the mystery of God’s salvation which is appropriated by us in and through Baptism and in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. These festivals summon Christians to re-initiation and renewal. Time, history, has no other meaning than the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes – the unification of all in the unity of the Holy Spirit, under the headship of Jesus Christ and, through Christ, that of the Father.

Salvation and the Mother of God

Secondly, consider Mary’s place in the Salvation that mankind requires, that God offers and the Church mediates. Our salvation begins and ends with humanity represented in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In celebrating her falling asleep we commemorate the entry of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, through death into the rest and glory of the Kingdom of Christ

In her birth is seen the form of our own birth into the world, the miracle of our creation. It is a great Festival because there is nothing greater than the birth of a human child, and the creation of man marks the highest point in the process of creation because man is made in the image of God. So the Falling Asleep of Mary becomes a reminder of our death. The question you raise is: Why should such an awful thing as death be a festival ? But for the Christian death is not a leap into the darkness of the unknown. It is no longer a sign of condemnation but of victory, a sign of dormition, returning home, being transferred from the earthly to the new abode, assumption i.e. taken up into the Kingdom of God’s glory and power and eternal life.

Christians, unlike pagans, normally celebrated the day of their death. The feasts of the saints are normally associated with their falling asleep. Mary is no exception to this rule. Her Falling Asleep is her greatest festival. The explanation of this is found in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ (Holy-Week-and-Easter) which for Christians is the greatest of festivals. Jesus raised Lazarus from dormition, sleep, to make this point. This is exactly what the great Festival of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary signifies.

The Icon

In the icon of Mary’s Falling Asleep the Risen Christ appears in the centre, and standing before the death-bed of his mother he reveals the mystery of his Resurrection through her, as he holds in his arms her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a helpless newborn baby. It is the soul of the Blessed Virgin which is assumed at her falling asleep. She who held the helpless Christ-child, is now taken up in his mighty and incorruptible hands as his creation, and carried into the light and glory of his firmly established Kingdom. So she becomes the first witness to the glory of her Risen Son and Lord.

Signposts of the Gospel

Thirdly, consider these events of her life as sign-posts of the Gospel. The part she played in this bringing of God’s salvation to the world is inseparable from the part taken by her Son. In His festivals we meet the Gospel of the incarnate God, who for our sake and for our salvation came down from heaven, died and rose again. He did this to make it possible for us to become ‘partakers of that divine nature’ that lived in the flesh he took from Mary. In other words he did this to enable our humanity to share in his divinity, while remaining creatures. He came so that He might share with us the life he lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit.

At the Cross, Mary, loses her Son who became Lord of all as she in her turn becomes the mother of us all, the new Eve, the new mother of all humans, the Queen of Heaven. She gained all the disciples and becomes the Mother of the Church as he becomes the Lord of all.

And Finally!

The title of Godbearer, Theotokos, is not given to Mary to upgrade her into a divine being, like the so-called Goddess of Mercy. The title is not concerned with the honour of the mother, but is safeguarding the true nature of the Son. In calling Mary the God-bearer we are not saying that she gave birth to the eternal Godhead. We are saying that if Mary was not the God-bearer, if she had not given birth to God made Man, then Christ was not truly God. But also, that while Christ was divine as well as human, he was not two persons but one. Christ is one person in two natures. Divinity partakes of humanity in Mary to make it possible for humanity to participate in divinity. Like Mary we will always be creatures, as her title the New Eve emphasises. Like her, by grace, we will be able to share in the divine life that Christ lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit. This transfiguring of the human by immersion in the divine is salvation and is made possible by Mary’s “Yes!” to God. That is the difference between Christianity and Buddhism; between Mary and the Goddess of Mercy.

Arthur Middleton is the Rector of Boldon in the diocese of Durham.