As many English people and maybe some of you do, during summer time I tend to go with my family to warmer places than England. The choices are usually Italy or Spain. However, It has been awhile since the last time I have been in Italy or Spain on the date of the feast of the BVM, which is kept as a Solemnity in those countries despite the unbearable warmth.
I still recall one of those occasions when I was in Italy for the feast of the BVM and could picture in my mind people processing under the most inclement sun, sweating like pigs and hoping that the following year the vicar would make a shorter procession. Here in London our spring-ish summer allow us to take some time to pray and reflect on the beauty of the feast we celebrate today.
We heard a majestic and dramatic opening to this Feast by the Book of Revelation, which will inspire so many artists and result in the production of plenty of paintings and statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary depicted exactly as described in the first verse of today’s first reading: “A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”.
The scene we heard described in the Revelation foresees the great cosmic battle between Good and Evil, respectively represented by the Virgin who is about to give birth and the red dragon ready to devour the child to be born. In this vision the woman plays an absolutely central and crucial role in the history of salvation. Without her there would have been no salvation because she is the one who would give birth to the child “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod”.
This is also the central message for the celebration of the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary we receive from the Christian tradition. Already in earlier centuries, it was believed that Jesus glorified the body of his mother and took it to heaven making it similar to his and stressing the role of Mary in the history of salvation.
In many countries the Assumption is marked as a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church and as a festival in the Anglican Communion. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of the Mother of God) on the same date. What we celebrate then is something that Christians have always believed since the early centuries: Jesus wanted to give a special recognition to her mother for her role in the history of salvation. Why is this celebration so important to us? There are certainly many reasons why we keep this feast, but one is particularly important: she is one of us, a human being with free will and capable to say “no” to God and turn down his plans of saving the world from destruction. The beauty of Mary lies in her freedom, through which she chooses to be the Mother of God, the Theotokos. She chooses to say “yes”. This is the beautiful truth we celebrate today.
There are some beautiful paintings like the one by the Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci who very boldly described the annunciation as a declaration of love: a noble man proposing to a princess. This is the interpretation that some experts actually make of the renowned painting. If we could translate this into the original theological meaning of the biblical text, we would perhaps say that it is God who proposes to Mary through his messenger. Fascinating! How beautiful is a God with an expectant look towards Mary hoping to receive a “Yes” like a lover proposing to his beloved and expecting to be accepted. It is such a moving and profound image of the encounter between God and Mary. On that “Yes” will depend the destiny of the whole history of salvation. This is also what we celebrate today: Mary’s yes to God’s plan of salvation for the whole humanity. Let’s avoid the temptation to take her “yes” as a line of a script already written for her. This is not acting! We may have to understand that she could have said “no” to God, which makes her even grander to the eyes of the world. She didn’t, she said “Yes” and it all begun.
This feast of the BVM, then, is so important to us because it sets us into the right perspective in our daily Christian life. Like Mary we can always say “no” to God’s plan of salvation for our life and the life of the people who live with us, and the community we live in. We can turn him down by not listening to his voice or simply doing the opposite of what he asks us to do, or even worse by ignoring him. Mary reminds us the beauty and terrible responsibility of being human and endowed with free will. We are not machines, we are not determined to say necessarily “yes”. Sometimes, we don’t realise the consequences of saying “no” to God and the impact of it in somebody else’s life. However, it is absolutely true that we have been created as free beings and endowed with free will. It is not very hard to find evidence of that! By looking to what happens around us and in the world we will dramatically realise how many “Nos” are said to God’s plans and “Yes” to violence and death, and essentially evil. What happened in Nigeria where at least 11 people were killed in an attack on a Catholic church service in southern Nigeria last Sunday, is just one of the many examples of that.
In Mary we celebrate the exaltation of human freedom before God, our creator who made us 100% free as well as its powerful responsibility. Like Mary we take part in the cosmic fight against evil. The red dragon is still here. It’s not gone just because we don’t talk about it. At the same time, we know that evil has already lost the battle, because the Virgin gave birth to the Child who will save the world. With Mary we sing the Magnificat, which is the exaltation of her and our magnificent freedom. A freedom that made her and us part of God’s plan, glorifying the humble and the weak and scattering the proud in their conceit.
How beautiful is the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, so full of biblical echo and accomplished prophecy. It also shows us that the exaltation of Mary is a symbol of human and godly fruitfulness. When God’s will meets human freedom, there will always be love, which for us will mean to be the Son of God, the child destined to be the savior of the world. With Mary we say “Yes” to life, to love, to beauty, to holiness and justice despite the death, hatred, ugliness, secularism and injustice we see in our society and this world.