Death and Assumption
Feast of the Assumption: 15th August, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Seventeen years ago my sister Clare fell to her death in a climbing accident. I was an ordained priest, and had conducted a number of funerals, but this was different. Death had never touched me so closely as this before. A few months later I was on retreat at St Isaac's retreat house in the north of New Zealand. I was sitting in silence in the beautiful chapel when suddenly a wind picked up. It seemed to be rushing down the wooded valley behind me and then just as suddenly as it started, it stopped. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I was overwhelmed with the sense of a spiritual presence. Thoughts of my sister welled up, as did the tears in my eyes. Then the wind picked up again, and it was as if Clare's spirit was once again on its way, having said goodbye to her brother.
What happens when we die? It is one of the primal existential questions we all face (or actively attempt to avoid) at one time or another. Sigmund Freud, in his Reflections on War and Death (1918) wrote:
Our unconscious ... does not believe in its own death; it acts as though it were immortal. What we call our unconscious ... does not acknowledge its own death, to which we can give only a negative content. The idea of death finds absolutely no acceptance in our impulses. This is perhaps the real secret of heroism.
Freud saw death as the final, decisive moment of existence; and just a void beyond. Heroism, for him, was to look this finality in the face without any recourse to illusory belief in an afterlife.
Most adherents of the world religions, and even some secular humanists, at least leave open the possibility of a reality beyond death, but more usually we have a strong sense of death as a doorway into another reality. This week the actor Robin Williams took his life after a long battle with depression and addiction. One of his films that most stayed with me was "What Dreams May Come" (1998) based on a novel by Richard Matheson. It tells the story of a family torn apart. The father and two children are tragically killed in two car accidents, and the mother then falls into deep depression and eventually takes her own life. The story is told through the eyes of the deceased father who tries desperately to console his wife from beyond the grave. When she kills herself he goes in search of her soul, which is trapped in the deep darkness of a hell-like existence, and he sets out to free her. It is a beautiful story of redemption, and even salvation, in the face of unimaginable sadness. It is fiction, but the narrative is replete with theological reflection.
Today we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a feast day we inherit from the early church as they grappled with the same questions of death and the afterlife that we all face. What happened to the beloved Mother of God, Mary most holy? There is no record in the New Testament other than an oblique reference in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation that some commentators link to Mary's assumption. From the fourth century apocryphal accounts began to circulate, however, and by the eighth century the tradition was well formed, as we can hear in the words of John of Damascus (c.676-c.787):
St Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.
According to the life of St Theodosius (d. 529) a feast day for the Assumption was already being celebrated in Palestine before the year 500, probably in August. But it was not until November 1st 1950 that it became Catholic dogma, under Pope Pius XII, who declared in his Munificentissimus Deus: "the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." It finally became a required Roman Catholic belief, and anyone who publically dissented from the dogma Pope Pius asserted: "has fallen away completely from the divine Catholic faith."
As Anglican Catholics, for better or worse, we have a little more room to move. An Anglican bishop once said to me: "the Assumption is not an Anglican doctrine; why are you observing it." In one sense that is true, but I think the answer lies in the mystery of worship rather than in arguments over dogma. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has put some serious thought to this, and in the paper "Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ" (2004) they conclude:
Our two traditions share many of the same feasts associated with Mary. From our experience we have found that it is in the realm of worship that we realise our deepest convergence as we give thanks to God for the Mother of our Lord who is one with us in that vast community of love and prayer we call the communion of saints.
I don't know if it was just a changeable breeze that I encountered on retreat in New Zealand, or something more. But in that holy place of prayer and worship my soul was touched and my grief healed in a very real and lasting way.
So too, this night, as we observe an ancient Christian feast and together open our hearts to the mystery of God, we may be accused by outsiders and even bishops of being misguided or superstitious. But I suspect that these critiques don't really matter too much. I suspect that each of us will go away from this act of worship renewed in our spirit and perhaps better able to face death, illness, and the myriad of challenges that life throws at us. And I suspect that we may also be better equipped to journey with others facing those same challenges. Thanks be to God.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.