Sunday, August 14, 2011

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Titian: Assunta.

It's funny how so many people today are critical of the idea of Papal Infallibility. Ever since the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine of Papal Infallibility back in 1870, commentators, including some Catholic ones, have voiced opposition. Many of them while denying the doctrine seem to put on the very mantle of infallibility themselves. Today all we have to do is look at the political talk shows on TV to see pundit after pundit absolutely sure that their position on any issue is the only correct one.

As a matter of fact the Popes have acted in a much more cautious and humble way than most of their critics. Papal Infallibility only means that the Pope cannot err when he is speaking "ex cathedra," that is, from the chair of Peter, in unison with the entire Church, and only on matters of faith and morals. As far as I can tell the Popes have only done this on two occasions and both concerned Mary.

In 1854 even before the first Vatican Council Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He affirmed that Mary from the first moment of her existence was free from the stain of original sin. Now the Pope wasn't talking about the birth of Jesus to a virgin. He merely said that Mary through the grace of her divine Son was conceived without the flaw or imperfection that every son and daughter of Adam and Eve inherits. Interestingly enough the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception had been debated by theologians and scholars for almost 800 years before the Pope's proclamation.

Since that time the only other occasion when a Pope ventured to speak "infallibly" occurred in 1950 when Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine which we celebrate today, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In today's first reading we have the famous image of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In today's gospel we have St. Luke's famous account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

Window: Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Fairfield, CT.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?'

Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).


Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Problem of Pain

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

The first reading each Sunday is usually from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. Besides it’s own value, the first reading serves as an introduction to the Gospel reading. I think that the majority of these readings are taken from the Prophet Isaiah whose words, uttered more than six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, have always been thought to refer to the Messiah.

However, these words are not Isaiah’s words since he tells us that he is merely passing on the word of the Lord to us. In today’s reading the Lord invites all those who are thirsty to “come to the water;” and all who are poor to drink wine and milk “without paying and without cost;” and all who are hungry to “eat well,…and delight in rich fare.”

The Church uses this passage from Isaiah to introduce St. Matthew’s gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, a miracle that has always been regarded as pointing to the miracle of the Holy Eucharist. But before we get to the actual account of the “loaves and fishes” let’s look at the beginning of this gospel passage.

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

We believe that Jesus was true God and true Man, but I think that we tend to overlook the actual humanity of Jesus. We might have reverence for His Sacred Heart but sometimes I think we read a gospel passage like this and think that Jesus had a heart of stone. There is no sign of grief or sorrow in Matthew’s account. He just tells us that Jesus went off by himself when he heard the awful news.

Maybe the Evangelist wanted us to use our own imagination or experience to understand the actual emotional response of Jesus. My eye surgeon once told me that only 2% of the eye drops I have to put in my eye each day actually get through the defensive wall that protects our eyes. In the same way, I think that our souls have been made with a defensive wall that protects us from most of the horror and tragedy we hear about each day on the news. Otherwise, how could we calmly read about murders, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, and famine and calmly go about our business each day? Once in a while, a public event like September 11 stops us dead in our tracks but it doesn’t take long for things to get back to normal unless we have been personally involved.

It is only when the bad news becomes personal that it can penetrate the outer defenses of our souls. The death of a loved one especially if that person was young or in the prime of life is truly devastating. Sickness and suffering within our families can be overwhelming. I have heard it said that everyone in church is there for a reason. Despite our outward calm most of us have some hidden pain that we bring to the altar each Sunday. How can we deal with it? How did Jesus deal with the tragic news of the death of John the Baptist?

He had a human as well as a divine nature and so we see him act like many of us would do when faced with a great tragedy. He needed some time to Himself. But then, He got back to work. He saw the vast crowd and despite His own grief, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”

Some people think that suffering and pain come from God. It is hard not to sympathize with those people who ask, “How could God have allowed this suffering to come to me?” The pain and suffering does not come from God, it comes from the world we live in. Much of it is even caused by down own efforts. But Jesus was a healer who never hurt anyone. He came to bring us happiness, not sorrow. His words and miracles provide a way for us to deal with the sorrows that this world provides.

Look at today’s account of the feeding of the hungry crowd. This miracle should remind us of the way we are fed in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus took the little bit of food that they had and offered it up to his Father in heaven. He said a blessing and broke the loaves just as the priest does at Mass. Then he asked the Apostles to distribute the food to the assembly. They were all fed just as Isaiah had predicted. Despite his own personal grief Jesus took care of the needs of others. He expects us to do the same.

It is interesting to note that before the miracle Jesus had expected the Apostles themselves to provide for the hungry crowd. He said, “There is no need for them to go away, give them some food yourselves.” Is it in the Eucharist and in the care for others that we will find solace for our own pain? The love of God is the true food that Isaiah talks about, and it is given freely, not like the false or junk food that we accept today as a costly substitute.

In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans St. Paul says that no amount of tribulation can separate us from the love of Christ. Despite all of his own pain and suffering, he could write,

What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,…
Nor any other creature will be able to separate us
From the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Reading 1. I Isaiah 55: 1-3
Reading II. Romans 8:35, 37-39
Gospel. Matthew 14: 13-21 (Loaves and Fishes)