Rorate Caeli

The Two Women: Sermon for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary


And Mary said:  ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my savior.’”  (Luke 1:46)

Two women:  so different, yet women, these two women whose role in the destiny of the human race have been pivotal. Their importance transcends that of any mere man who has paraded across the pages of history.  Compared to these two women, pharaohs, emperors, kings, Wall Street whizzes, tech giants:  whatever the power on the stage of history, nothing compares with these two women.  Secular feminism is blind to all of this, for whatever is purely secular is blind to the reality of the spiritual, is blind to that Spirit that blows through humankind from the beginning, that Spirit that brooded over the waters, that Spirit that gave the amorphous lump of clay life and called him Adam.

Two women: our lives, our futures, depend on them.  The first has been consigned by those who claim to know such things to the realm of myth, out of the reach of the real.  But to know how very real this woman was and how very real her stamp on the whole human race, one could not do better than go to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence and look at the awesome Masaccio frescoes there.  Look on the left, and there, in an unforgettable depiction, is the woman.  She is naked and she walks beside the man.  But it is her face, a face that once seen is never forgotten.  Her eyes are empty sockets; they are black.  And the expression on her face is a grief that is as deep as the universe. Compared to this grief, the grief of the great Greek tragic heroines—Medea, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Iocasta—is nothing.  This woman’s grief envelopes all of creation, for it is her act of disobedience that banished her and her man, he who fell no less easily, he who walks beside her in dazed apprehension of what lies beyond the paradise of Eden.  But it is her horror at the darkness that lies before her—this is what leaps out of Masaccio’s fresco, not merely because he is a great artist, but because the horror is there.  For what Eve saw in the blackness of her sight was not only pain and anxiety and loneliness and disconnectedness—she saw death.  And she wept the tears of all creation.

The other woman. Go to the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa de’Frari in Venice.  You enter the church by the side, one of the transepts. The church is Gothic, but it is Italian gothic, so different from the gothic of the French and English churches.  But there it is with its pointed arches and its very high nave.  You advance to the opening in the choir screen that separates the nave from the choir of the Friars and the sanctuary and high altar.  But you pause, and you must pause. For what is seen in that opening cannot be approached casually, cannot be looked at as if you were looking at just one painting over the high altar in an Italian church.  And so you walk slowly, and now there is the opening in the screen, and you turn and you look, and there is the amazing painting in the distance that surprises you and takes your breath away, no matter how many times you have seen it in its setting.  You walk through the friars’ choir to see the painting more closely.  Where there was darkness in the eyes of the first woman, where was that grief that knows no limit to its depths, where there was that sorrow that knows no end:  here there is light, a light that seems to come out of the very painting that dominates the whole space over the high altar, the altar framed by the screen separating the nave from the sanctuary, earth from heaven.

Whence comes the light?  The light comes from above.  In the Masaccio fresco there is no above, but here the light is intense and from above, and it envelopes the woman.  There are the little angels, the putti, gently guiding the woman in her ascent to the light, in the light. The apostles look up, amazed and yet not surprised, for what else could be expected for the one who as an immaculate Virgin bore God in the flesh—what else could be expected than that she would be borne at the end of her life on earth body and soul into heaven in her totality as a woman.  No disembodied soul this. No this is the woman, clothed in a red so distinctive, so compelling that it bears the name of its creator artist, Titian red, as she looks up, anticipating, knowing the fullness of life, knowing the love of her Son, knowing the love of God that draws her up into the infinity of God, her face open, no false, sentimental piety here, her face open to the light that suffuses her, the light that matches her purity and holiness, the Light that came into the world and the world knew it not, the world that sees with the eyes of the first woman, the world that is blind, the world whose eye sockets are empty, void. 

And yet, it is in this woman full of grace, it is in her assumption into heaven, body and soul, that is seen the destiny of those who see this Light, who are drawn into this Light that is life itself, who live by this Light, those who are in the world but not of the world, those who believe in her Son as the Resurrection and the Life: it is this woman’s assumption that those who believe see their own destiny in the Resurrection on the last day.  For as the first woman caused the gates of heaven to be barred, closed, shut, so now this woman not only opens those gates, but makes the possibility of heaven real, real for you, real for me, real for all who are flesh and blood, for all who hear and believe those words: “ he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.”

And while it is true that Mary’s Assumption into heaven is a singular privilege, for there is no other human being in the history of the world who plays the role she does in our salvation as the new Eve, as the bearer of God, as the mother of the Savior:  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 that we look forward to. 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 person of Jesus Christ, whose body was gloriously transformed into a body no longer subject to the corruption of death but 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 Christ and acted out in the world in a life that is centered on doing the will of God whose own will is that all who do his will shall live.

And to be able to celebrate Mary’s Assumption in the Traditional Roman Mass, that Mass that was celebrated in this parish church at its founding and now is celebrated once again in this church in all of its depth and beauty—this gives us such joy today.  Maria assumpta est; in caelum gaudent angeli, collaudantes benedicunt Dominum, alleluia. Mary is assumed into heaven. The angels rejoice and bless God saying:  Alleluia.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla