AN EXALTED DORMITION
Geoffrey Kirk preached at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham on the Feast of the Assumption
WHEN MY EDWARDIAN predecessor erected in St Stephen’s Lewisham an elaborate tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament he surrounded it, as you do, with Latin texts taken from the gospels. Below the door, in pride of place he wrote ‘Et verbum caro factum est. ' Words from the first chapter of St John: ‘And the word was made flesh’.
My predecessor, no doubt, was wanting to make a point, still controversial in the Church of England in those days, about the real and substantial presence of the Lord in the elements of bread and wine. But his quotation, as I have gazed at it every day for fifteen years, has come to take a more central place in my faith and my prayers, just as it is central to the gospel from which it comes.
John puts it at the very beginning of his story, as though he wants to get the scandalous bits over first. And none of the words he uses in Greek are quite what in English they seem.
Logos is not 'word' in the sense of a sound spoken or characters on a page. It is far more ethereal and disembodied. It is the word from which we derive our 'logic'. It is purpose, plan concept, reason even, perhaps even 'reason' itself.
And sarx is not ‘flesh’, in the rather neutral way in which we sometimes use it - ‘a thing of flesh and blood’; ‘the weakness of the flesh’. It is more a word for the butcher than the moralist. It means meat.
John is trying to demonstrate, by the terms he uses, what a monstrous oxymoron he is on about. Ultimate purpose linked inextricably to bleeding meat.
And, of course, what John is on about Walsingham is on about. This place exists as a place in which to celebrate the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God. And that can only be done in and through Mary. This little building redeems the kitsch it contains by the two great images at its back and front, its beginning and end. Over there is the home where he was reared, and behind me he sits as he now eternally is, the flesh of Mary seated beside the flesh of Mary.
Our Lady, who plays so small a part in the narrative of the gospels, is at the heart of their meaning and significance. Her life spells out the glorious absurdity of a God who takes on himself our nature. In her womb the Creator takes on creatureliness, the Maker has a mother. He who made her all that she is must learn from her to feed, to walk, to speak, to love and to obey. Mary toilet-trains God. Everything in her relationship with Jesus brings us back to the contemplation of those words of John. ‘Et verbum caro factum est’. The word was made flesh.
Today’s feast, for all that it concentrates our minds on heaven and our hope of it, is a feast of bodiliness. Mary is assumed into heaven body and soul. Her humanity, her bodiliness, like the bodilness of her Son, now has an eternal status and value. The flesh which gave God birth reigns in glory beside the flesh which still bears the wounds of the nails.
In a phrase which has been tortuously and feloniously used to defend the ordination of women to the priesthood, St Gregory Nazianzen spelt out the salvation-logic of the Incarnation: ‘Not taken’ he says, 'not healed’. Jesus, that is, can only save humanity from its sinfulness in its humanness. And so he must become wholly, completely and irrevocably human. The idea must become meat so that the meat can be exalted.
Now at this stage I have a confession to make.
For me perhaps the least enjoyable part of the parochial ministry is the time that one spends in crematoria. It is not that I dislike funerals - as a matter of fact I rather enjoy a good funeral. It is because of all that those tasteless and lugubrious places represent. They are a neat tying off of the ends of life’s tangled skein. Incineration is the ultimate in tidiness.
Sometimes, when I have more than one funeral, and no time to go home the meanwhile, I creep into the organ gallery with the poor man who spends his working days alternating Crimond with Shine Jesus Shine, and I listen to other people’s sermons. They are not, for the most part an edifying experience. Nine out of ten of them avoid all reference to sin; most refer to God only in passing; and I defy anyone, from a selection of sermons recorded at random in Lewisham Crematorium to reconstruct with any accuracy at all the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
The assumptions which underlie the sermons always seem to be those of the immortality of the soul - arguably not even a Chrsitian doctrine at all. They speak of everlasting life as an escape from our humanity, and not the consummation of it. And of course the machinery of the building reinforces the words spoken. The catafalque goes down or the curtains close, and the smoke is rising from the chimney as the limousine moves sedately up the manicured lawn passed the carefully tended shrubbery. Better a hole in mud, say I.
Today’s feast is a blessed assurance that it doesn’t have to be like that; and that as a matter of fact it isn't. Life does not need to be sanitised because it has been sanctified. For reasons which are very human and based in affinities of blood and the shared experiences of a lifetime, Jesus wants - commands - his mother to be beside him. All that they have been to each other, humanly speaking, is what will endure.
Their life together was full of the sort of incidents which sermons in crematoria tidy up, for fear of embarrassing the living. He spoke harshly to her; he chased her away; she could not understand. She was alone: alone during the years of his ministry, alone through the long week of the passion, alone at the foot of the cross. Their dealings, one with another, surely show that there is pain at the heart of every relationship, of the relationship of every mother with every son, even the relationship of an immaculate mother and a sinless Son. But the pain matters; it is as creative as the joy. No: more creative. Mary and Jesus are both who they are because of it. And they are one flesh.
‘Not taken; not healed’ says Gregory. ‘And the word was made flesh’, says John.
There is in one of the city churches of York (alas, no longer in use) a magnificent eighteenth century altar piece, all carved lime-wood and mahogany. And like the tabernacle in Lewisham it is set about with Latin tags. Along the entablature, in gold letters about six inches high it reads: ‘Sic Deus dilexit mundum’. More words from John.
The whole parrure, including the tiny communion table at its base, with burr walnut veneers and fashionably turned legs, is for all the world like a sideboard, and would look very much at home groaning, like a Dutch still life with dishes of fruit and bowls of nuts and decanters of port. ‘God so loved the world’.
What the altar-piece lacked, until some spiky Vicar in the thirties imported one, was the single object which would make sense of the quotation. There was no crucifix.
It was fatally easy, in that comfortable, rational, Enlightenment-infected century, as it is now, to forget what the Incarnation cost and what it was for. It is fatally easy to erect for ourselves a religion which is all affirming and never demanding. But it cost the death of God and it was for the deification of man. Neither of them are concepts which the rational mind finds easy to take in.
God’s love for the world in the gospel story is a bitter thing, shot through with malice and misunderstanding and blood. And yet God pursues that painful way in order to take to his heart those who nailed him to the cross. ‘Sic Deus dilexit mundum’
Today we celebrate the fact that the awful suffering concludes with endless triumph. The medieval artists tricked out the enthronement of Mary in heaven with all the tinsel they could muster. The apse of this Church echoes the great mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, where Mary is enthroned beside her Son, sumptuously decked out in gold, under a golden roof plated with the first fruits of the Americas, sent in tribute by Columbus himself.
The extravagance sprang from two realisations
First it arose from a sense of immediacy and involvement. Mary’s triumph is our triumph; her assumption is our hope of glory. Now she is in heaven, at her Son’s side; and we are her flesh and blood. The prayers at Vespers in the Orthodox Church to-night will put it with clarity and simplicity: in Mary’s exaltation our nature takes its place in heaven.
But the extravagance and the excitement had another cause. It came from an awareness that, as the Duke of Wellington said of the battle of Waterloo, ‘it was a damned close run thing’.
Our Christian forebears, who made this feast into one of the brightest in the calendar, had, I suspect a livelier sense of sin than most of us who celebrate it now. They knew how easily glory fades and joys turn sour.
The whole story of salvation, after all, turns on s single moment. It is the most terrifying ‘What of...’ of history. What if the Jewish girl had said no to the angel? What if self-will had triumphed over obedience?
Then no Church; no Sacraments; no priesthood; no Papacy; no Holy Roman Empire; no Chartres cathedral - and no salvation. It was, indeed, ‘a damned close run thing’.
‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life’
The glory of the Assumption shines so brightly for so many millions of Christians, only because the darkness of sin surrounding it is so invasive, so palpable. We can hope to share its glory only by the Father’s grace, through Mary’s intercession, and by an obedience, painful, simple and direct, like hers. Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark
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