Archive for August 15th, 1999

Feast of the Assumption

I said this was an embarrassing feast. And I’d like to convince you of that by starting with a quiz. Eyes closed please… Paying attention to what you are feeling… OK … first question: what does God like most about your body? Just stand there naked before God and see what God’s response is? We might ask the choir in a moment to tell us about their reactions! OK, now the second question: let God take a long look at your soul. What does God like most about your soul? Now for the real question—which is more embarrassing—to have God look at your body or your soul? … I think we’d better let the choir off the hook! You can ask them later if you want!
So … Why this feast? What’s it all about? What are we celebrating?
Well something about Mary the Mother of Jesus certainly, but something too about us all, in fact something about the whole world, the whole cosmos. It’s got two parts and the first is pretty clear from the readings: no matter the power of the dragon—no matter that it can sweep a third of the stars from the sky with a flick of its tail—no matter that it lies in wait to devour all new life—the dragon, death, is doomed. Death itself is dying. And all God’s people are under protection. And Mary carries that burden of life for us all—the first of us, poor bags of blood and water that we are, not to die. A singular success but the pledge of a universal destiny. And in its way this is even more awesome than the resurrection of Jesus. We’re not talking dead and risen here but never died at all. Because the joy of the resurrection has renewed the whole world—something God has done in Jesus has changed the world. And, though we can’t see it too easily, death is dead.
That’s part one of the great assumption. Part two is both weirder and more wonderful. Mary doesn’t die but is taken up body and soul into the life of God. Body and soul.
I’ve been remembering Jim Keeley this week as I’ve prayed with these readings. And thinking too of Michael, a friend of a friend, who has ALS as Jim did, Lou Gehrig’s disease. If anything can rob the body of all dignity yet leave the soul untouched, that’s it. But if our assumption is correct, God isn’t satisfied to have souls winging their ethereal way to the pearly gates—but wants from us all, body and soul, the whole person forever.
But why bother with this carcass? Doesn’t it only get in the way, doesn’t it constantly defeat our attempts to be holy, doesn’t it season all our pleasures with pain, doesn’t it undermine our hopes of unending prosperity and progress? These bodies of ours betray us. Even here in America where they are worshipped above all ages. Buffed or sloppy, they’re going to let us down—and I don’t just mean cellulite and bad breath and the need for Viagra.
So why doesn’t God simply translate Mary’s soul to a happy resting place and let the body drop, let her leave it behind, let it rot. Wouldn’t she be glad to see the back of it anyway—of rheumatism and flu, of inconvenient urges and embarrassing noises.
When I last saw him, Michael could hardly swallow, could hardly make his tongue shape breath into speech, was long beyond even scratching an itch on his disappearing body. This is the assumption in reverse—the assumption mocked. And by God I hate it! But when Michael meets his maker—and pray it will be soon—what body will he wear? He was a strong guy, handsome, athletic, and now that’s keeping him alive when a weaker man would have wasted away long ago. Who will he be before God? And that’s not a frivolous question … for any of us. What does God like about our bodies? Who does God see?
We’ve seen the statues but still have to wonder… is the heavenly Mary really a frail maiden in blue? Why not an elderly woman in widow’s black, or the wide-eyed poet of the gospel today singing the song of death’s overthrow. For though it might be Mary’s soul proclaiming the greatness of God, but her body it is which is blessed with the great things God is doing. And it is the strength of God’s arm which scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and casts down the mighty from their thrones. It is the God who found his own body through Mary’s who is always lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry. Why?—because bodies matter. Because God loves bodies. Loves their beauty, marvels at their frailty, is struck to the heart by their power and potential. And, thanks to Mary, God knows bodies from the inside out, knows the feeling of love and pain, of illness and hunger, of fullness and desire, of violence and healing. Because God has fallen in love with the flesh of the world. And when he says today “this is my body, this is my blood,” he means it literally. And when we say Amen to the body of Christ we should dare to mean it literally too. He is here in the flesh, in our flesh, in Michael’s flesh—aching to be taken, broken, eaten … to answer our hunger with bread, and our longing with his own.

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