Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2016

Father Richard G. Cipolla
St. Mary's, Norwalk, Connecticut
August 15, 2016
The Assumption of the Virgin, by Leonard Porter (2013)
St. Mary's, Norwalk, Connecticut (Source)

“When the corruptible frame takes on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality, then will the saying of Scripture be fulfilled: death is swallowed up in victory.”  I Cor. 15:53

When I am asked what Christianity is basically about, and this question arises more and more in the post-Christian culture we live in, I answer:  it is about death.  This comes as a surprise to non-Christians and to an increasing number of Christians as well.  But it should not be so, since it is the question of the meaning of death and the event of the death of Jesus Christ that are at the heart of this faith.  A religion that does not squarely face death and does not have an answer to the fundamental question of death can have no relevance to anyone’s life.  But if someone asked me what today’s feast is all about, I would respond that this feast is the commemoration of an event that is the response to death, or this is what we understand as the fruit of Christ’s death, namely eternal life with God, the source and giver of all life, and we join all the angels in heaven and sing:  Mary is assumed into heaven; today she was raised above choirs of angels to lasting glory with Christ.

All would go well—until I mention the body: that Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul.  This is where the trouble starts. The problem is the body.  Those people who have no real religion but claim to be spiritual people are perfectly open to the idea of some purely spiritual residue surviving after death.  They don’t mind talk of souls flying up to heaven or somewhere, but they rebel against the notion of the body somehow being included in this existence after death.  Part of the objection lies on the purely obvious and biological level.  It is obvious that in death the body grows cold and decomposes.  It seems to be the final end for that part of us, the physical part, we call the body.  But the objection goes deeper, because to admit that the body participates in any way in the state of eternal life after death is to admit that the body in this life, what I do to it, what I do with it, is ultimately important: that the body is much more than merely an appearance and in the end is surely as vital a part of the person I am as that spiritual part I call the soul.

The body is always the problem. It was the problem for the Greeks in the Apostolic church, who were open to hear about eternal life but walked away when Paul began to speak of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the problem today with those who want to spiritualize and moralize away Christianity and deny any lasting value to the body with the result that they claim they can do whatever they want to do with either their own body or someone else’s body, even that of a child in the womb, and claim that this has no ultimate significance, because it is merely physical, merely body, with no ultimate relationship to the spiritual.

This is why so many Catholic funerals today are now a maudlin canonization of the one whose body lies cold dead in the church.  Everyone now flies on eagles’ wings to some sort of heaven where all Catholics go, where the hope of purgatory has gone the same way as the fear of hell, where priests wear white vestments on both All Saints Day and All Souls Day, fearing to upset the people with the traditional color of black, which color reminds us of the finality and reality of death, but also the beautiful hope that lies beyond the darkness and sorrow, all of this a sentimental denial of the reality of death and a cheapening of the virtue of Christian hope. A priest once said to me:  “We are a resurrected people”.  I replied:  “I am not aware that I have died yet, so real resurrection is not an option for me at this time.” Or homilies that describe the dead woman dancing a jig at this time and smiling on everyone.  Can anyone take this seriously? No. People are not that stupid, and they have Masses said for the dead and they pray for their beloved who have died.

All of this fools no one.  Whatever we may want to believe because it makes our lives easier, everyone knows that the body is absolutely an integral and necessary part of the person I am.  My body is how I live in the world. It is not merely a shell for the soul—pace Plato—it is involved in the most intimate way with the soul, and what I do with my body always affects my soul and what I do with my soul affects my body.  Therefore there can be no talk of redemption and salvation, there can be no talk of eternal life, unless the body is included, for this is a part of the person I am.  Salvation means being saved body and soul, as the whole man, as the whole woman.  And ultimately the feast of the Assumption of Mary is a feast of her redemption, what that means. She who was conceived without original sin by the merits of her Son’s death on the Cross, in other words in anticipation of her Son’s death on the Cross, it is she who is now the fruit of that redemption, when she is taken up body and soul into eternal life with her Son.  It is Mary who is redeemed and who is queen of heaven, not some disembodied soul, but Mary the woman, the woman who is clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And while it is true that hers is a singular privilege for there is no other human being in the history of the world who plays the role she does in salvation history as the New Eve, as the Theotokos, the bearer of God, as the mother of the Savior, her realized destiny gives us great hope.  What is a fact for Mary, her being in heaven body and soul, as a total person, is what is our hope for ourselves.  For it is our resurrection to which we look forward, it is the fruit of our redemption in Jesus Christ who died on the Cross in a real body and who rose again on the third day not as a ghost but as the man, Jesus Christ, whose body was gloriously transformed into a body destined to live forever in the glory of God.  What Mary is today in heaven in eternity is what is our sure hope for ourselves, a sure hope founded on faith in Jesus Chris and acted out in the world in a life that is centered on doing the will of God whose will is that all shall live.

But we rejoice also because this is the patronal feast of this great parish of St. Mary’s in Norwalk.  And how fitting it is to celebrate this feast in the Traditional Roman Rite, where the polyglot of languages of the people of this parish come together in the objectivity of the Latin language.  This Mass is the very cornerstone of Catholic Tradition, not the product of a committee but rather the distillation of organic development of 1600 years.  It is the greatest work of art in the history of the Western world, but art not merely in the aesthetic sense, but rather art as the bridge between the shadows of this word and the reality of heaven.  How blessed is this parish to be at the very forefront of the return of Catholic Tradition that is embedded in this Mass, this Mass that is the antidote to that secularizing sentimentality that confuses the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, like Ulrich Zwingli, the Protestant reformer in Zurich, who destroyed the altar and set up a wooden table, with a communal meal or a representation of the Last Supper, where the priest becomes the focus of the Mass as a presider, instead of he who vanishes within the rite and enters into that silence that is the silence of Mount Moriah, that is the silence of Mount Tabor, that is the silence of Mount Calvary.  This recovery of the sacred that is at the heart of the mission of this parish has nothing to do with nostalgia for an imaginary past or with some sort of reactionary sensibility. This recovery of the sacred is inextricably linked to the recovery of the Catholic faith as a faith that is living, that is joyful, that is beautiful, a faith that is a light in the deepening darkness of a world in thrall to the gray eminence, the disease that is secularism with is attendant self-centered sentimentality.

We celebrate this feast with great joy, for Mary is assumed into heaven, body and soul, and she makes our hope for ourselves something real.