|Keelung Night Market|
The restaurant was fairly crowded and so a young Chinese couple asked if they could join me at my table. Of course I agreed. They wanted to practice their English and so we talked as I picked at my rice and pork.In those days Navy chaplains gave out pocket-sized copies of the New Testament and Psalms. One was sticking out of my shirt pocket and the young woman asked if it were a dictionary. I think she wanted a copy. "No," I replied, “It’s a copy of the New Testament, a book of Christian Scripture.”
Well…that generated a blank look. So I asked if they were Buddhists. They said their parents were but that they weren’t believers. Then the woman said, “Can you explain it, tell us about it?”
Have you ever tried to explain Christianity to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it, nothing of Jesus Christ and His saving work? Where to begin to tell these two well-intentioned people about our faith? I suppose I could have started with Abraham and Moses and David, but that would take hours.
For some reason, maybe because it was Christmas, I instead went back to Nazareth, to the greatest event in human history, to that day when Mary gave her consent to God to become His Mother.
After brief stops in Nazareth and Bethlehem, I went on, struggling to tell them something of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something of the Gospel and the gift of faith. I told them of the Holy Spirit, and about the universal, Catholic Church founded by Jesus, and its mission to make disciples of all nations, even Taiwan.
But throughout it all, I found myself coming back to Mary, the Mother of God, this unique woman who always points to Jesus and by doing so has inspired and brought faith to so many; for she is humanity’s greatest advocate. Throughout her life, again and again, she pondered in her heart the mysteries of the Incarnation; and as St. John reminds us, in total faith and remarkable strength of character, “She stood by the Cross of Jesus” [Jn 19:25].
Yes, her life of faith, fullness of grace, and perfect discipleship is bracketed by two miraculous events, two of God’s gifts to Mary and to all of humanity.
Her life on earth began with the Immaculate Conception, when she was brought into being with a perfect, sinless soul – for the vessel that will carry and nourish our divine Savior must be perfect.
And that earthly life ended with the Assumption, when her body too was brought into perfection, into God’s heavenly presence. After all, how can this body, this body that gave flesh and blood to God Incarnate…how can this body suffer corruption?
Telling all this to my young Taiwanese couple while struggling to eat with chopsticks is no easy task. And so to reward me they bought me a beer. I repaid them by giving them my New Testament. As I left them I hoped that my weak attempt at evangelization might have yielded some fruit. But that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.
Later, walking back to the ship through a soaking rain, I remembered that I had used a holy card as a bookmark in that little New Testament. On one side was that beautiful painting of the Assumption by Titian, a painting that hangs today in the Frari Basilica in Venice. On the other were the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
|Titian's Assumption behind the Frari's Main Altar (Venice)|
Although the Assumption wasn’t officially declared a dogma of faith until 1950 by Pope Pius XII, it was a common and accepted belief within the entire Church for centuries. Indeed, we find homilies on the Assumption, or the “Dormition” as it is often called in the Eastern Church, dating to the fifth century.
The Assumption celebrates Mary’s singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection by which she was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory when the course of her life was finished. Why did God do this for her? With partial understanding, we can say that Christ has a unique relationship with the body and soul of Mary, for her body held the Incarnate Body of God Himself. And so, when her life on earth ended, God glorified Mary, both body and soul.
We see implications of this in our first reading, from the Book of Revelation, where Mary is seen as the "woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" [Rev 12:1] – as one who is above all of creation. She’s also depicted as a mother, which she is, many times over: Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of us all.
But as a disciple of Jesus Christ, she’s also our Sister. And as the perfect disciple, she’s our model, our model of how to live the Christian life, our model of faith and hope. She is among "the first-fruits" [1 Cor 15:20] that Paul refers to, the first-fruits of "all who are called to belong to Jesus" [Rom 1:6] and who share in His triumph.
We see her in her role as disciple most clearly in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. What a remarkable scene! The young Mary, now Mother of the Incarnate God, is told by Gabriel of her aged cousin’s pregnancy; and in a humble act of love, she leaves in haste and makes the difficult journey from Galilee to Judea to visit Elizabeth.
Yes, Mary is a true disciple, a fact that Elizabeth points out when she greets her: “Most blessed are you among women...” An inspired Elizabeth, recognizing who has come to visit her, continued, “…and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” [Lk 1:42-43] But the Spirit’s not through, for John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting.
Mary acknowledged the divine grace that filled the whole scene: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” [Lk 1:46-47]. All three, Mary, Elizabeth and John, greeted one another filled with the Holy Spirit, and filled too with thanksgiving and joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of God's promise to give a Savior to all of creation.
How fitting a reminder to us today that Jesus Christ was greeted first by a baby in the womb, an unborn infant who pointed to His coming as the Holy Spirit revealed the presence of the King to be born. This is the power of the Holy Spirit, brothers and sisters, the gift that enables us to know and experience the indwelling presence of God and the power of his kingdom. The Holy Spirit is the way in which God reigns within each of us. And so Mary, filled with the Spirit and full of grace, joyfully receives the gift of God’s presence.
From this you and I learn that God visits us in the everyday experiences of our lives, encounters steeped in God’s love. We also come to realize that God remains with us in all our human activities, for He is the presence that holds us up. As St. Paul reminds us, “In Him we live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:28].
And it is through these divine encounters, these everyday meetings with God and His people, that we are saved by God’s tender mercies. As our model of faith and hope, Mary shows us all this and more. She accepted her mission with uncompromising faith and obedience. She acted with unwavering trust because she believed that God would fulfill the Word He had spoken.
Her great hymn of praise proclaims the favor of the Lord: He has "lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things” [Lk 1:52-53]. And He does so through us. The Holy Spirit is ever ready to renew faith and hope in God's promises and to make us strong in love for God and our neighbor. Yes, Mary is our model in this too, especially in this age of violence and hatred, an age that celebrates the culture of death.
Let us, like Mary, be the vessels that carry God’s love, God's life into the world. For her Son came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” [Jn 10:10].
Let’s thank Mary, our Mother, for her fiat, for her acceptance of God’s presence within her, so that today, through the Holy Spirit, we too might receive within us the Body and Blood of her Son, all for the Glory of the Father.