Today is a celebration about promises and the greatest promise of Jesus Christ – the promise of eternal life – beginning in the here and now but perfected after death. The great Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to teach that death was not an end but a new beginning and that the soul journeyed to God and that for some that journey was hard and to be bathed in the loving light of God’s forgiveness might be difficult for some to accept. This idea that there is some kind of growth – albeit a different kind of growing for we will have no mortal body – fills me with hope. Jesus says that in his Father’s house there are ‘many mansions’ but it is better translated ‘staging posts’ which suggests that there is growth and movement and that is why we pray for the dead and to the saints.
In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church there is a simple question:
Question: “Why do we pray for the dead?”
Answer: “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”
It is, of course a great mystery, but it helps us understand why the church has always had a vision of heaven where saints and angels enjoy the presence of God and why in every Eucharist we proclaim that we worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. That is why the Communion of Saints, which we affirm in the Creed, is about the Church on earth and the Church in heaven.
And today we affirm Mary’s presence in heaven. There are those who question this, but if Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is not in heaven, where else can she be? Just over four years ago my own mother died – she had been part of my life for 50 years. Do I really believe that she is in a state of limbo, or worse, a place of nothingness, or God forbid, in hell? Do I really believe that there is no hope for her? Or do I continue to hold on to that teaching which promised her eternal life and which began at her baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
When our dear brother John died so suddenly on Wednesday I felt like someone had taken away my breath. I had to sit down. I could not believe it. Father Spurlock put my feelings into words when he said to me that he had never before been so affected by a death. And we are heartbroken because he and Lily were at the heart of our life here at Saint Thomas Church. And there is anguish in all of us as we reach out to Lily and her unborn child and yet in reaching out we have no words that seem adequate.
There is, of course, in the eyes of the world a great irony in what we are trying to do here in this church today. Why would be celebrate a great feast in honor of Mary when we are still feeling so raw about the death of someone we loved? The answer? Because we live in hope – the same hope that our brother John believed in passionately. So, yes, we celebrate today just as on Thursday we gathered in this church in silence.
Jesus promised us eternal life, and through Jesus, God breaks into our mortality and affords us hope. At the Requiem on Thursday evening, I reminded us of some words of Henri Nouwen: “Eternity is born in time and every time someone dies whom we have loved dearly, eternity can break into our mortal existence a little bit more.” (A Letter of Consolation).
The Anglican Tradition has never lost its devotion to Mary including her universal title – Mother of God – a translation of the Greek word Theotokos first affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431. I was once told by a wise priest not to worry about devotion to Mary or honoring her on earth as long as all that was said and done gave glory to Jesus and said something about him and his teaching. This title Mother of God is a case in point for it says more about Jesus that it does about Mary; it is an orthodox statement of faith in the incarnation – that God became flesh in the womb of Mary – that Jesus was truly God and truly human – the same faith that John believed – the faith that we proudly proclaim today – and this was at the heart of the deliberation of the council of Ephesus.
Such deliberations are with us today; we are challenged to put our faith into practice and other will suggest that we are deluded. Worse than that, he church seems pre-occupied with ‘who is in and who is out’ at the moment. The Anglican Communion seems set to tear itself apart over who belongs and who doesn’t belong and it is shocking to hear talk of people being described as heretics or even ‘damned’ by those who should know better. Those who are most concerned with where people go when they die are often, in the words of Rob Bell ‘less concerned with the hells on earth right now’ such as violence, war, poverty, homelessness, drug dealing, human trafficking, hunger…or even simple human grief.
Today, in Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, we affirm our belief in the Word made flesh and give proper honor to the Mother of God – the same honor that our brother John afforded her in his careful choosing of music to be sung about her and with her in the countless settings of the Magnificat that he has taught over so many years. We affirm our belief in the promise of eternal life given to all of us and we use the example of Mary by means of encouragement on our own Christian journey of faith.
In the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission document ‘Mary – Grace and Hope in Christ’ – we discover that this example is a living part of our Anglican heritage – shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as part of our common shared love of bible and tradition. It states: “the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory is consonant with Scripture, and only to be understood in the light of Scripture.” (paragraph 58) Or, as the collect today put it very simply, God has taken her to himself.
So my old priest was right – everything we say about Mary must say something about her Son – her Assumption or whatever ancient title we decide to use – says as much about our grace and hope in Christ as it does about Mary’s role in the drama of the incarnation. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said: “Mary gives us a pattern of Christian Living which echoes our own calling and our own journey with God.”
Which echoes John’s calling and his journey with God.
This pattern is the pattern many of us recognize in our own pilgrimage of faith:
Our sense of calling by God – who am I – what does God want me to become?
Our sense of journeying with God – through hard times as well as good.
Our sense of wonder at glimpsing the glory of God – those moments when we can touch and feel God’s presence and are filled with his Spirit.
Our hope for a share in that glory – so that not even the fear of death can prevent us from living in joyful expectation.
If you want a beautiful image to take away then I suggest that you read just one line from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles – Chapter 1, verse 14 which describes the life of the infant Church for it will remind us that what we do today is not at odds with our feelings of loss and grief and that we live in hope:
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” Acts 1:14
May the prayers of Mary join ours as we journey to our heavenly homeland today and may she pray for our brother John who kept her song alive all through his life.
Mary recognized the glory of her Son: “For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.” Those words were deeply rooted in John Scott’s heart and he expressed them by using Bach’s own words of dedication for all his sacred music – Soli Deo Gloria – May those words, like Mary’s, take root in our hearts: ‘To God alone be the glory.’