Of Dragons and Darkness
Christopher Scott gives a Cornish perspective on the Fifteenth of August and the Solar Eclipse
A GREAT PORTENT APPEARED in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. ' [Revelation 12.1]
What other text could you choose for the Sunday after the solar eclipse! Possibly Mark 13.24: 'In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light... then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.'
Here in Cornwall we certainly had the clouds, but despite all the hype, and scare-mongering, this experience was something out of the ordinary. People all over the county gathered on remote hills, muddy campsites and along the cliffs, gazing into the heavens. For a moment our souls were lifted above the more mundane concerns of daily life.
Its not difficult to see how in earlier ages, before the advent of Patrick Moore, people saw in the movements of the heavens and the stars portents of our life on earth. In fact in both of the above texts we are introduced not to some primitive horoscope but to the language of Jewish apocalyptic - that is, ways of interpreting what is happening in the present in terms of 'the end'. In our day notions of apocalypse have tended to imply some great cosmic disaster whether we blow ourselves up with a nuclear bomb or ruin the planet by the effects of global warming or hasten some other ecological catastrophe. In other words apocalypse is about doom and gloom.
Not so in Jewish apocalyptic: the gloom was present all right. Maybe it was a sense of being abandoned by God or living in exile cut off from ones roots; maybe it was the experience of persecution and the prospect of martyrdom that stalked the early Christians. But the apocalyptic writings - with their exaggerated expressions and cosmic symbols - sought to sustain hope in terms of the end of all things. And here is the crux: the End of which they speak is not some cosmic disaster but God's final purposes for good and the redemption of the world from the clutches of evil.
Today's feast is one of six feasts through the year in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the revised Anglican calendar, it is just termed 'Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary', but as anyone who travels to the continent knows well, August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption, and is accompanied by every excuse for feasting, fireworks and merriment. In the eastern churches, its simply called the 'Falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary'. Now I know that many Anglicans have a history of being 'wary of Mary' as it was once put! There's an inbred fear that excessive devotion to our Lady might detract from the uniqueness of Christ and his work of redemption.
But we should not get too scared! The Assumption of Mary is one of those hidden truths which adorn the circumference of the Christian mystery. And what it gives us is a personal handle on the meaning of the cosmic victory over the powers of evil that Christ has won. What today's feast actually proclaims is that Mary at the end of her life fully shared in the resurrection life of her Son, so much so that body and soul she was gathered into heaven. In the words of a preface for today's Mass: "Today the Virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and pattern of the Church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way."
One of the great enemies of Christian truth has been the tendency both within the church and beyond to domesticate our deepest hopes - and to reduce what we believe to what is instantly accessible. This week saw paraded before our eyes a wonderful spectacle of the solar eclipse - and invasion of our daily lives by one of the wonders of God's creation. Here acted out before us was an ancient solar myth when the sun battles with the dragon of darkness.
The early Christians found they needed to employ symbols as large as these to give substance to their ultimate hopes. That woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, described the faithful remnant of the chosen people of old, in whom Gods' purposes were being unfolded. But it was the response of Mary in loving obedience which heralded the new beginning. As our reading goes on to describe: the child that is born escapes the clutches of the dragon, and the woman is taken into God's protection - the work of redemption is accomplished.
The Feast of the Assumption - because it is about Mary - is about us. It's rather an 'in-house' kind of festival. As Viadimir Lossky has suggested, it's more about sustaining hope for those who already believe, than a theme of the public preaching of the Church. Today we celebrate that 'new beginning' which has already been formed in us and in God's future will be brought to fulfilment. In our baptism we have been adopted as children of God, incorporated in the life of Christ. One day that life entrusted to us, made visible in the mystery of the church, will be brought into the fullness of the Resurrection-life. Mary already shares this fullness - 'the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet is a sign of the hope that lies before us and which, by God's grace, we too shall enjoy to the full.
Christopher Scott is Rector of the United Benefice of Budehaven and Marhamchurch in the diocese of Truro.
A Sermon preached on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
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