Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Vigil of the Assumption
August 14, 2000
1Chron15:3-4, 15-16;16-1-2; 1Cor15:54-57; Lk 11:27-28
1. This Gospel, at first glance, seems to be a very strange choice on this Vigil of the Assumption, the Vigil of the taking of Mary, body and soul, into heaven by God at the end of her earthly life. In the short dialogue between Jesus and the anonymous woman in the crowd, our Lord seems to be reluctant to join her in magnifying his mother. It seems that he even changes the subject, from his mother to anyone who hears and obeys the word of God. Nor is this episode an isolated occurrence. Matthew recounts the time when Jesus was told that his mother and kinsmen were outside wanting to speak to him. Jesus’ response obstensibly seems to have even the character of a rebuke: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He then pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
2. Some Protestant commentators have pointed to these passages as clear refutations of scriptural support for what they term Mariolatry, Catholic “worship” of Mary. They say that Jesus is the first “Mariaclast,” the first one to shatter any hopes of such veneration for his mother. Mary is no more exalted, and no closer to Christ, than anyone who does the will of God, they claim.
3. Well, in faith we know otherwise. We know how much Jesus loved and admired his mother by the fact that one of his last acts before his death was to entrust his beloved disciple to her care. We know how close she was to the heart of the mission for which the Father had sent the Son by her presence in the upper room on Pentecost. Here was the womb from which the Mystical Body of Christ was born, and Mary, from whose womb the Head was born thirty-three years before, was again present at that painless birth, both by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we know how highly this lowly handmaid was exalted by God after the end of her earthly life, being assumed body and soul into heaven. We know all this. Yet we would also like to know why Jesus acted like he did in public, when others tried to bless the mother he himself had ordained that all generations would call blessed. Just what was he up to in the dialogue with the anonymous woman?
4. Jesus certainly was not contradicting the woman, by implying that somehow Mary’s life-giving womb and breasts were somehow not blessed. We’re talking about the womb in which was conceived the Son of God and the breasts which nourished not only a mere child but him who created both her and the world. Surely Mary’s womb and breasts, and her whole body, were blessed! They were privileged in a way that no other mother’s have ever been or will be. We also know Mary was blessed in an even more particular way. Her whole being, as Pope Pius IX infallibly proclaimed, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Mary’s whole being was full of grace. And that same body is the only body other than Christ’s now in heaven. What a blessing indeed!
5. Yet, rather than bless that womb publicly as he had done in secret from the first moment of her conception and had proved by his own conception within her, Our Lord decided to respond “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” In so doing, he was not refraining from blessing his mother. Quite the contrary. In fact, he was far exceeding the anonymous woman’s praise and pointing out the chief source of his Mother’s beatitude. Christ does not allow his mother to be objectified as a mere possessor of womb and breasts, however privileged they may be. Rather he points to her as the paradigm of all blessed people, for she more than any other had heard the Word of God and kept it. She heard the Word of God announced by the prophets and kept it. She heard the word of God announced by the Angel Gabriel and kept it, and kept it so well that the Word became flesh within her. The Word in fact took her flesh, and she kept the Word within her womb for nine months and in her heart forevermore.
6. But we read elsewhere that she didn’t just keep it. Luke tells us that she “treasured” the words of God through Gabriel and “pondered them in her heart.” Later, after she had experienced both the horror of losing her 12-year-old son and the mysterious joy of finding him conversing among the doctors of the law, Luke tells us again that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” So Jesus, in answering the woman in the crowd, publicly blessed his Mother not for her INIMITABLE privileges but for her IMITABLE example. She who was full of grace is praised as the model of how to live in the state of grace. And hence she is our model for the Christian life. On this Solemnity of the Assumption, in which the whole Church looks to Mary and praises her and worships God through her, let us see how well we stack up to her example.
7. Jesus praises her for two things — hearing and keeping the word of God. First, hearing. We can ask ourselves to what extent do we try to listen to the word of God each day. We could certainly examine how attentive we are to the reading of Sacred Scripture at Mass. All of us who attend Mass listen to the word of God there, but do we hear it? Do the Scripture readings of the day actually make a difference in how we approach the day? Can you recall, for example, what the first reading at today’s Mass was about? Or the second? How about the psalm?
8. Hearing the public proclamation of the sacred Scriptures is certainly a good place to begin hearing the Word of God. But it isn’t the only place we should examine. We can also examine our consciences on how often we try to listen to the Word of God “whispered” in private mental prayer. We all know that private prayer is often difficult, and that sometimes we can’t “hear” anything. But what type of effort are we making, what type of vigilance are we keeping, for the time when our sometimes-seemingly-mute-Lord-hiding-behind-the-tabernacle-door will want to tell us something? By our birth and particularly by our rebirth, God has given us the ears to hear him. The question is: are we using them?
9. Next we can examine to what extent we try to hear the word of God spoken to us by God’s will through the events of the day. Do we advert to the things Jesus says to us through the lips of others during the day? Do we hear his voice when someone asks us for a favor? Do we see him in others, particularly in those in need? Do we hear his confident assurance, when vicissitudes begin to vex us, that only one thing is necessary, and that God loves us more than many sparrows?
10. The first thing we learn from Mary’s example is to hear to the word of God. The second thing we learn from her is to keep it. And so we can ask ourselves on this great vigil how much we try to keep the word of God as she did, by saying, “so be it” to whatever we hear from God. When we hear the word of God to love our enemies, do we really try to keep this? When we hear that we should not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing? When we hear “blessed are the poor in Spirit”?
11. I suspect many of us do try to keep it, struggle as we may. But Mary, as we read, didn’t just keep the Word of God, but she treasured it. And so her example gets us to ask ourselves whether we treasure it. For example, do we really treasure the commandments in our hearts, and the moral law in general, or do we see them as mere externally imposed against-the-grain dictates of God that we rather wish he never gave us in the first place? Perhaps easier: do we, like the Blessed Mother, really treasure our vocations, whether married, priestly, as widows or widowers, etc? Our Lord says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Is our heart always set on the Word of God?
12. We really should not be too discouraged if our answer to any of these questions has been “no.” Mary is our model and we should not forget that she is full of grace. Mary could not have conceived of trying to keep the word of God by her efforts alone. She fully availed herself always of God’s support. We should as well, which is perhaps the greatest thing she teaches us on this great feast in her honor. As she discovered, if we really want to keep the word of God, the grace of God to help us to do so is guaranteed. Christ himself says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” If we knock, the door to the treasure chest of God’s graces will be opened to us. May we knock like the importune woman in the Gospel who kept knocking — all night long — until her neighbor gave her bread!
13. In front of the shouting woman in the crowd, Christ exalts his mother as the paradigm of blessedness, of happiness. She is truly happy, because happiness ultimately consists in God, who was and is her sole treasure. Mary not only heard the word of God, she kept it. She not only kept the word of God, but treasured it. She not only treasured the word of God, but, as Luke tells us, “went with haste” to bring that treasure to her cousin Elizabeth. Today at this Mass, we ask her to intercede with her Son that we may follow her great example, listening attentively to the Word of God, putting it into practice, treasuring it always as a gift of God’s immeasurable grace, and sharing that treasure with others, so that one day, with her, we may too spend eternity, body and soul, in heaven. This is a feast of holiness, that a human being, in responding fully to God’s grace, has acheived the purpose of all human life. One of our own now reigns in heaven, praying, interceding and inspiring us on our own path. Sanctity is possible! And she shows us the way! Hail Mary, Assumed into Heaven, Full of Grace, pray for us! Amen!