A great pop moment of the 80s was the video for Diana Ross’ ‘Chain Reaction.’ Here Miss Ross can be see with huge hair wearing a giant sparkling fish-tail dress, on a revolving stage with fireworks exploding all around her. It really is one incredible moment of fabulousness!
The Feast of the Assumption is sometimes imagined in this way, especially by some of the more baroquely minded of the Christian Tradition’s artists. Here, Mary can be seen being bodily assumed into heaven, surrounded by cherubic angels, with swirling robes; a picture of wonder and beauty.
The Feast of the Assumption sometimes feels a little too much for the Anglican Church and we often do away with the colour, carnival and courageous images of Mary ascending into the heights of heaven, crowned with splendour. Sometimes we retreat to that apologetic kind of Anglicanism where we are embarrassed by the colourful and shocking images of our tradition, so we ‘slim down’ our faith to some kind of middle-class acceptability. Ken Leech is right when he argues that “one striking feature of most modern liturgies is their moderation and restraint. There is no excess in word or gesture… they are reflective of ‘one dimensional man’, clean and functional, expressing little but the middle-class taste of the 60’s! In case you haven’t got it yet, I’m all for the opposite, bringing back the colour, drama, movement and music of the medieval church.
In the end the early medieval doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is nothing less than a poetic meditation on the resurrection. Mary shares with Christ in the power and triumph of life over death, and the Church of God proclaims with vigour and beauty that its life cannot be contained or defeated by the destructive powers of death that are all around us, but that rather all life is to be taken up and embraced by the power and the purpose of God.
It was the priests of the Oxford Movement – people like Pusey, Lowder and Conrad Noel – that reminded the Church of England that all ministry is about lifting people up to experience something new, lifting people up to experience the promise of God, the power of God; and I couldn’t agree with them more. The real problem is that most of the time we’re simply content to stay where we are, experiencing the same old things, stuck in the same old patterns, and so we resist. But Christian discipleship is about this stretching – stretching our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, until they can contain something of the mystery and the abundance of God’s love.
In Mary we see someone who experiences all of life: the joyful hope of new life at the annunciation, the willing trust of obedience; the courageous proclamation of a world transformed in the Magnificat; the deepest wrenching sorrow as she stands at the foot of the cross; and the fiery power of new commitment at Pentecost. But here at the Feast of the Assumption, Mary gives us a glimpse of all our futures, not a future marked and defined by death, but a glorious future, taken into the heavens with Christ.
It is St Paul who most powerfully reminds us that we are called to live as if the resurrection is a reality for us, that we’re not to be content living in the same way as everyone else, that we’re not to be defined by the same fears as everyone else. Sometimes the Church as a community simply mirrors the world out there – offended by the same old petty things, caught up in the same small prejudices, bemoaning the loss of some golden age of Christian faith and life. But Paul tells us that it shouldn’t be like that, we’re to be people and communities of new creation, not old creation, a people marked by the abundance of life, not the lack of it.
I’m rather excited as the Vicar of All Saints at the moment as I begin to learn the rhythms and patterns of this community, and we begin to think anew about who we are and who we might be together. It is my hope that this Church can be a sign of what new creation is all about, a centre of excellence for music, for community engagement, and vigorous faith. This means we need to become like Mary, marked by the same energy, enthusiasm, life and promise that she was. Can our vision be assumed into the heavens – widening, expanding, deepening – as together we enter fully into the beautiful mystery of God? I wonder.
Fr Ryan Green