The Rector writes…
I have a new personal image of Heaven. For years, in my mind’s eyes, I have seen the next life in terms of a Fra Angelico altarpiece in the National Gallery which shows Christ in the centre with ranks of (identifiable) saints surrounding him, but that visual imagery has now become more sensory having been taken to the recent Prom performance of Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” at the Albert Hall. The singing of the Gloria at the end of the Magnificat was utterly stunning, and if that is what can be managed on earth, I cannot wait to hear the reality performed by the Heavenly choirs! Dedicated to Pope Paul V, the full title of Monteverdi’s great work is “Vesperis in Festis Beata Mariae Vergine” and was intended as an act of filial homage to the Mother of Jesus – the one whom William Wordsworth could describe as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”. From the early Christian centuries artists have used every available medium to try to capture something of the mystery of the humble Virgin of Nazareth who was destined to be raised on high as Queen of Heaven. Claudio Monteverdi marks a high point in a tradition which is represented so beautifully in our own times, and our own culture, by John Tavener in “The Protecting Veil” and by James MacMillan’s version of the “Stabat Mater”.
On Tuesday of this week the Church asks us to celebrate Mary’s heavenly birthday. It is a matter of faith for Catholics that in a glorious mystery Jesus’s Mother should have her own share in her Son’s Resurrection. We believe that once her vocation on earth had been lived to its completion, Mary was taken up, in body and soul, to join Jesus in heavenly glory. The Assumption is the strongest statement possible about the value and dignity of the human person – each one of us being destined, with Mary, for life, and not for death. It is also a clear and unequivocal affirmation of the worth of the fleshly nature we share with her, and underlines the credal statement that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting”. As with Christ’s own Ascension, it is way beyond our understanding how the material can be assumed into the eternal – as indeed it remains beyond our grasp as to how the Eternal Word could have become substantial in his Incarnation – but Mary points the way which is now opened up for each of her brothers and sisters to have their own part in the life of eternity. The definition of her Assumption also shows that there can be no easy or absolute separation of body and soul: somehow our carnality has to be sanctified, and, as with Christ’s own wounded body, the experiences of this life will remain an essential part of our own future identity.
If all that has been written above is not easy to comprehend, then perhaps we can turn to the Eucharist for help? In every celebration of the Mass we believe that Jesus is substantially present. In a sense, the Word who became flesh at Bethlehem re-presents that mystery by becoming part of our time and space every time we fulfil his command to “do this”. Christ now exists over and beyond spatial and temporal considerations and yet, as the Alpha and the Omega of all that is, he moves freely within and outside our orbit. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” says the Lord, who makes the solemn promise “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats bread will live for ever” and then goes on to declare: “as I who am sent by the living Father myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me” (John 6:58). The Eucharist is key to the realisation that earth and heaven, present and future, death and new life, now and eternity, are less fixed and absolute than we usually think, and that there is an interaction, a living communion, which is experienced through an intimate sharing in the life and glorification of Christ.
There cannot be a more obvious icon of the fullness of redemption which is made possible in Christ than in the Assumption of his blessed Mother. Christ’s people have always seen in her the prototype of a humanity saved and raised up to what it was always intended to be. No wonder Christian writers have spoken of her as the Second Eve, and that in consequence, “there is no need for us to be nervous, sparing or niggardly when we honour Mary … for it is the sign of a truly Catholic life when there grows to maturity in our hearts a personal and tender love of the blessed Virgin” (Karl Rahner). These thoughts began with the Marian devotion of Monteverdi: perhaps they can finish by recalling that arguably the greatest sprinter of all times, Usain Bolt (like many of us) wears a Miraculous Medal round his neck, a sign of his love for the Blessed Mother.