Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why Is Mary Important? The Meaning of the Assumption

The Assumption of the Virgin (1476), Francesco Botticini

On August 15 of every year, Catholics commemorate the Solemnity of the Assumption, a Holy Day of Obligation and one of the great Marian feasts of the year. The following is my homily for the Masses this year:

As part of my summer reading this year, I’ve recently been making my way through a history of the Second Vatican Council. As you may know, it’s been 50 years since Vatican II, and I’ve been interested to learn more about the deliberations that led to the documents we now have.

The Council considered a whole variety of topics – the liturgy, the Church, the priesthood, bishops, the laity, relations between Christians and non-Christians, religious freedom, the modern world, and many more. One of the topics considered was Mary. In fact, during the second session of the Council, there was a big debate between the cardinals and bishops about whether they should craft a separate document just about Mary, or whether she should be treated in a special chapter within the document about the Church.

What they ultimately decided – they went with the second option – is not as important as the fact that they had the discussion. As Catholics, we place great importance on Mary, just like the Orthodox and some Protestants do. But why is that? Why was a young Jewish woman who lived in a backwoods town two millennia ago the subject of debate and discussion by hundreds cardinals and bishops in the modern day? Why is Mary so important for us?

Of course, it has to do with who her Son was, who Jesus is. As our Savior, Jesus has forged a New Covenant between mankind and God. As his Mother, Mary is the instrument by which God chose to bring his Son into the world. In the first reading we heard about the ark of the Lord, that great vessel which the Israelites carried, which bore the Ten Commandments and Moses’ staff and some manna. The Israelites revered it greatly, because they saw it to be the symbol of God’s abiding presence in their midst. Mary is sometimes called the ark of the new covenant, for it is she who bore God into the world, so that in Jesus, God would be not merely in the midst of his people but one of them, like us in all things but sin.

Just as the Israelites honored the ark of the Lord because of what it contained, we honor Mary because of who she gave us. She welcomed Jesus at the Annunciation, she gave birth to him at Christmas, she raised and formed him. But on the Solemnity of the Assumption every year, we honor Mary not only for what she did for Jesus, but for what Jesus did for her. We recall that it is our firm belief as Catholics that at the close of her life, God assumed Mary to himself – he took her to heaven, soul AND body. Because she was without sin, because she had been the vessel by which God had given us our salvation, God preserved her from any stain of corruption or decay and welcomed her wholly to heaven.

As the bishops and the cardinals who were at the Vatican Council knew, Mary is indeed important for all of us who are in the Church – not merely for what she once did, as great as that was, but for what she still can do and does for us who wish to follow Jesus. By the faith and virtue of her life, and by the power of her intercession, Mary always points us to Jesus. Today, though we also see how, in the Solemnity of the Assumption, Jesus points us to Mary. In what he did for Mary at the close of her life, Jesus gives a preview and a promise of what he will do for all who live their lives in communion with God’s will. Our Savior has given us a powerful ally in our struggles for holiness, a friend and a mother who will not fail to be there for us. Let us turn to her in all of our needs, that she will be our guide and companion on our journey through this life, so that at the close of our days, we might share in the same glory that she now enjoys.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Real "Miracle" of the Miraculous Priest Story

Have you been following this story? Over the last week or so, first among Catholic news services, and then in the national media as well, people have been speculating as to the identity of the mystery priest in Missouri. As described here, apparently a woman was in a serious car accident in that state and was trapped in the wreckage. Rescue workers attended to her, attempting to extricate her, but without much success. Soon, her vital signs began to fail. Around the same time, a priest appeared who prayed with the woman, anointed her, and then left. The emergency personnel were subsequently able to free the woman, and when they turned around to thank the priest, he was not to be found.

Several things about the incident seemed to suggest a supernatural explanation. For one, the highway was blocked for a quarter mile or so in both directions, and no one rememebered walking up or walking away. Descriptions of the priest's words and of his appearance varied from person to person, and despite the dozens of photographs that were taken at the scene, none contained a picture of him. Beginning with the woman and her family, words like "angel" began to be tossed around. Days passed and the speculation increased. Some believed that it was a holy priest who was able to bilocate from some other location to be present in the moment of need. Others thought it could have been an apparition of a long-dead priest who was invoked through prayer. Some even said there was no priest at all, but merely some spiritual (or hysterical) experience shared by all present.

Then, this morning, the flesh-and-blood priest who was at the scene came forward. He was born in Ireland, is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, and was returning from celebrating Mass in a nearby town, filling in for another priest. While certainly the priest was doing the Lord's work -- his presence brought calm to the situation, he administered the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing to the young woman, and his prayers very likely aided her rescue -- the true story seems fairly commonplace, even plain, when compared to the hypotheses of ghosts and guardian angels.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Eucharist (1911)

And yet, for precisely that reason, this story is even more important for us. Why? Because this kind of thing happens every day. Every hour of every day people are in dire situations -- physically, emotionally, spiritually -- and it is to them that Jesus the Savior comes. In and through his priests, he meets them sacramentally, forgiving their sins, comforting them in their pain and fear, or feeding them with his own Body and Blood. Miraculous stories of mysterious priests catch our attention, but how attentive are we to the true miraculous mysteries that are present among us each and every day? What greater miracles do we have or do we need than the sacraments, where we encounter Christ and his grace in a real and unmistakable way?

The mystery priest may no longer be a mystery, but in a sense, we should be all the more grateful at the way the story turned out. Nothing overly miraculous or amazing happened -- but, precisely for that reason, we were reminded again of the amazing miracles that God performs among us each and every day and to which we are so often blind. Through prayer, through the guidance of his ministers, and especially in and through the transformative power of the sacraments, God is working real miracles. Are we paying attention?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Eyewitnesses of His Majesty"

The Transfiguration (1594) by Lodovico Carracci

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration, the memorial of when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain to show them the reality of his divinity. This event is not only recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, but is also explicitly mentioned by Peter in his Second Letter. The Church uses the following excerpt as its Second Reading for today's liturgy:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
"This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Pt 1:16-19)

Note the change Peter has undergone: from the disciple who had been "overcome by sleep" (Lk 9:32) and who "did not know what he was saying" (Lk 9:33) to the Prince of the Apostles who unmistakably declares his faith in Christ's divinity and declares himself to be an "eyewitness" of the event which proved it. It's almost hard to believe it's the same man! And yet, that's what the gift of faith does. It changes and transforms us. It enables us to apprehend mysteries which are beyond human understanding and to glimpse glories which we will only truly grasp in heaven. Indeed, faith gives us a preview, a foretaste of heaven itself, an "assurance of things hoped for" (Heb 11:1) not from our own reason or experience but from the inner certainty given by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

For Peter, the Transfiguration event was a first glimpse of that glory which imbued this Jesus whom he followed. The glorious events to come -- the passion, death, and resurrection -- would be all the more remarkable for their contrast. And yet, as Peter would come to understand, such was the depth of God's love to allow him (and us) a partaking in Jesus's divine glory, a share in his inheritance, a participation in his Son-ship.

Today's feast is yet another opportunity to ask ourselves: How have I been changed by my faith? Does it guide and illumine my path in such a way that I declare myself to be an "eyewitness of his majesty" for others? Do I trust in God's Providence even when times are troubled and my path is darkened? The gift of faith comes from above yet it is one to which we must "be attentive... as to a lamp shining in a dark place," until that last and final Day dawns and we see the Morning Star rising and returning to us.