Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Crowning of Mary
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, 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 from the Book of Revelation 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.

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)
















Monday, August 6, 2012

Transfiguration of the Lord

Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

The gospel account of the Transfiguration is always used on the second Sunday in Lent, but the actual feast, the Transfiguration of the Lord, is celebrated on August 6. The morning prayer taken from Psalm 76 sets out the theme of the day. 
God is made known in Judah, In Israel his name is great.         
The morning prayers also include the account from Exodus of God’s appearance to Moses on Mt. Sinai, as well as the famous Canticle of Zechariah from Luke’s gospel.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
He has come to his peole and set them free
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
Born of the house of his servant David

In the Mass itself the first reading is from the Book of the Prophet Daniel and Daniel’s vision has always been seen to prefigure Jesus. Daniel saw:
One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; when he reached the ancient One and was presented before him, The one like a Son of man received dominion, glory and kingship...
This reading reminds us of St. Mark’s account today of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Jesus is far along in His mission when the event occurs. He has given the Sermon on the Mount, healed the sick, driven out devils, and raised the daughter of Jairus Earlier Jesus had fed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes. After this incredible miracle, He asks the disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" Peter answers, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Our Lord commends Peter and says, "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church. But then He reveals the mission of the Christ:

            From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem
            and suffer many things...and be put to death, and on the third day rise again.

Characteristically, Peter cannot accept this shocking news and our Lord rebukes him--"get behind me Satan"

Immediately after this prophecy of our Lord's suffering and death, we go to the scene of the Transfiguration where we get a  glimpse of the Resurrection. "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John. and led them up a high mountain by themselves," just as He would later do in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the mountain,

            he was transfigured before them,
            and his clothes became dazzling white,
            such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

Then two great figures from the history of Israel appear to Jesus and converse with Him. In his account St. Luke tells us that Jesus was speaking with them of the "exodus" that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. The word "exodus" is full of meaning. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery to the promised land--Jesus was about to do the same for us. Older translations say that Jesus was speaking of "his death, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem." But what does death and rising from the dead have to do with this glorious event?

Mark tells us that as they were coming down from the mountain Jesus told the there Apostles not to tell the vision to anyone until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” They were obviously confused but Mark tells us that “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” Of course, Mark wasn’t present at the Transfiguration but he must have gotten his information from his mentor, Peter. 

Today's second reading is from Peter’s second letter where he specifically recalls the event of the Transfiguration, and relates it to all that followed.

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “this is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.             .

Nevertheless they could not stay on the mountain. Jesus came down to continue his mission, his own exodus, and so too did Peter. It is our mission as well. Right before the Transfiguration, after Jesus had spoken of his crucifixion, He told the disciples and us that we must also bear our cross.
If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For he who would save his life will lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake will save it. for what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but ruin or lose himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory...
The morning prayer for today's feast includes this little hymn.
'Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Your glory fils the night;
Your face and garments, like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.
'Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Your beauty to behold,
where Moses and Elijah stand,
Your messengers of old.
'Tis good, Lord, to be here!
Yet we may not remain;
But since you bid us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain. 

*Image by Melissa DeStefano

 Reading 1. Daniel: 7: 9-10, 13-14
Reading II. 2 Peter 1:16-19
Gospel. Mark 9:2-10 (Transfiguration)