It isn’t often that we get a reading from Revelation in our Lectionary selections. If you are like me, you probably haven’t preached from it very much – if at all. Perhaps your biblical reading doesn’t include Revelation as well. Here is a chance to do something about that, so I will focus on the first reading and add some notes I found helpful about this feast.
When I did prison ministry at San Quentin in California, I was struck by how many of the inmates who read the Bible favored the Book of Revelation. What was it that they found so attractive in its exaggerated and stark symbolism – in a biblical book that most Christians seem to avoid? I came to realize they were drawn to its description of the harsh struggle between good and evil that permeates the entire book. They found it comforting to hope that the larger punishing system in which they lived would someday be overthrown, along with all the powers of the world. This was reassuring news both to the early Christians suffering under the Roman persecutions and the men in North Bloc at San Quentin. It is reassuring news for all of us who struggle against the powers of "the dragon" in our world.
Another attraction for the inmates, it seemed to me, was that they believed they knew the code: that they could figure out the symbols and metaphors so prevalent in Revelation. Somehow, they felt part of an inner circle with special knowledge – everyone else was outside that circle. They even used this "knowledge" as a way of feeling superior to those in their same situation. But whatever misinterpretation they may have made of Revelation, you could understand their attraction to this book of visions and prophecies. The book speaks to people suffering under extreme external pressures.
The early Christians, for whom this book was written, were being forced to venerate the Emperor. Not to do so had, not only religious ramifications, but political as well. Christians were asked to choose one Lord to serve – a choice had to be made. If they chose in favor of their Christian belief, they could have paid for it with their lives. Revelation is not an abstract book of fantastic imagery and other-worldly events. It was written to help Christians remain faithful and to offer reassurance that the Lamb (or as in today’s reading, the child) would be triumphant.
Is it any easier for us to believe and for our faith to flourish? A casual perusal of just this day’s newspaper tells us of still more racist incidents in our land; replays of the January 6th insurrection; the Taliban’s suppression of civilians, especially women, in Afghanistan; environmental degradation; hardened conflict between our political parties, etc. We have to ask the question, "Who is in charge here anyway?" We look around the world and are shocked by the scale of evil we see. Which force will win out? Are we believers on the side that will prevail, or is our seeming small human effort going to pale into insignificance before the "red dragon with its 7 heads and horns"?
Revelation intends to assure us that goodness will win. Like the early Christians we may be tempted to drop out of our faith commitments in the light, allure and power of the opposing forces. Who is the Sovereign we Christians follow? God is and we want and can be faithful to the biblical God of justice – the One who will set things right. Revelation then, invites us to set our gaze, not on our hardships and calamities, but on God. The power of the beast is awesome, its tail sweeps away a third of the stars in the sky. But the child being born is protected by God and will triumph.
While there is no secret code to this book to help us in its interpretation, the language does appeal to our imagination and makes it possible to interpret it in many ways. The struggle is clear and the threat of evil, devouring all that is good, is real and very ominous. A new people, the Christian community, are being born amid great pain and struggle. But despite the threats to its existence, the child is caught by God and is safe. No bible reader could miss the allusions to the Hebrew scriptures. Just as the God of the Jewish people protected them, so God continues to protect the new people of God. God’s Word is not past tense, but actively protecting and recreating the community for which Jesus gave his life.
The community John has in mind is experiencing extreme hostility. They are being encouraged through this book to trust that God knows their plight and will come to their rescue. Evil shall not triumph. It is no wonder then, that on this feast of the Assumption, this reading is linked to Mary’s "Magnificat." Mary’s rejoices in the saving work of God, "scattering the proud...casting down the mighty from their thrones...." Here biblical faith, expressed in two different forms, voices the same hope in God. John is not writing a prediction of specific future events, as some today claim, but is trying to encourage and console Christians in his day for their very present suffering. He writes to help them and us keep faithful and to assure us that God’s rule and justice will prevail.
The church celebrates the Assumption of Mary today. We see in her a model for our faith. We too give birth to Christ in our world. We are reminded that though Christ suffered, he has been kept safe by God, to whom he has returned and will come to bring us all to that place of protection and life. So, the dragon is not triumphant. The Christian is ready to say in the midst of the battle against evil’s many manifestations, "Now have salvation and power come." The God of our assurance is offering that assistance to us now in our present struggle.
[This is a complex feast on which to preach. I found some help, some approach for the preacher, from Liturgy Training Publication’s, SOURCEBOOK. I'll quote it in full and hope it offers some insights.]
"History of the Solemnity: Soon after the council of Ephesus (431) proclaimed Mary to be Theotokos, the Bearer of God, a feast of her "dormition" or death began to spread. Within a few centuries, the church in Rome began observing this feast, which came to be know as the Assumption. At the first National Synod of the American church (I791), the nation was placed under the patronage of Mary with the title of the Assumption. The cathedral of the diocese of Baltimore, at that time the See for the whole country, was given the same name.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption as dogma. At that time, he listed the benefits that should flow from this proclamation: a stronger piety towards Mary, a more universal conviction on the value of human life devoted to God's will, a repudiation of the materialism that diverts body and soul from their lofty goal, and "Finally, it is our hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective."
The images of the feast reflect its history. In its earliest form, the day focused on the paschal mystery as expressed in the death of Mary. Making her entrance into heaven explicit was the second stage, with language about a triumphal procession, a bridal march and Mary's bodily assumption later added a third layer of texts for the feast.
Liturgy today: Recent history has focused strongly on the bodily assumption of Mary. The readings for the vigil and the day, however, suggest a stronger focus on Mary's share in the paschal mystery, and on our own share in the same mystery. Planners might review the goals of Pius XII. Have our parish observances of this feast fostered a stronger belief in our own resurrection?"
----Lawrence Mick in, SOURCEBOOK FOR SUNDAY AND SEASONS: AN ALMANAC OF PARISH LITURGY, 1995 YEAR C. (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 1995) page 188.
"A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars."
Growing up, the Madonna was a powerful image in my family home. I have inherited both my maternal grandmother’s icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and my mother’s icon of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa. Both my mother and I had busts of the Madonna in our bedrooms. The older I get, the more I see her as a defender of justice, a wisdom figure, and a person who loved deeply.
In John’s Revelation vision, Mary is a glorious woman, Lady Wisdom, the unmated virgin, giving birth to the Word, who will be undefeated. Yet, Pope Francis laments that "we don't yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church." Do we need a theology specifically about women? Is our main image of Mary, as representative of all women, a docile Mary that has been put on a pedestal only to be dusted off from time to time, feast day to feast day? Fr. Richard Rohr writes in The Universal Christ (Convergent, 2019) that "Feminine power is deeply relational and symbolic--and thus transformative--in ways that many men cannot control or even understand. I suspect that is why we fear it so much" (124, 127-8). Think about all the gifts that women have to offer the Church that remain underutilized.
As a woman with my own life experiences, I see Mary as a strong woman who, with her infant, faced the injustice of the Empire; I see her as intelligent and educated in Torah; I see her as someone who carried many things in her heart including her experience with the Divine; and I see her as someone who valued relationships and home life, yet still sought to fulfill her own destiny that takes her away from home. Through her and the many other women of the Gospels, wisdom becomes personified. And she, as the Bride, embodies the Holy Spirit.
Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, writes, "the Assumption of Mary proclaims: "Christ is Risen - and is now bringing all faithful hearts with Him to glory!" For the sign of this hope to all the Church is that the heart that was closest to His own loving Heart, has already been raised to glory before us." https://www.thedivinemercy.org/articles/case-assumption-mary
What other religion has such images of woman?
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s Gospel reading:
Mary said..."God has remembered the promise of mercy,
the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever."
In her "Magnificat," Mary rejoices in the saving work of God, Who "scatters the proud...casts down the mighty from their thrones...." Her prophetic proclamation voices the hope the poor and oppressed have that God has and will raise up people who embody God’s mercy—as Mary’s Son did and as we are called to do.
So, we ask ourselves:
"Can you imagine what it’s like to have your boy on death row? Can you imagine what it’s like to visit him there every Saturday and tell him, ‘I love you. I’ll see you next week,’ when you never know if they’re going to call and say, ‘He’s up next—it’s time for his execution."’
----Jeanetter Johnson, Mother of Alan Gell, who was retried and found innocent because prosecutors withheld evidence that might have cleared him of first-degree murder.
[The News and Observer, February 15, 2004, Raleigh, NC]
Inmates on death row are the most forgotten people in the prison system. Each week I am posting in this space several inmates’ names and locations. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of them to let them know that: we have not forgotten them; are praying for them and their families; or, whatever personal encouragement you might like to give them. If you like, tell them you heard about them through North Carolina’s, "People of Faith Against the Death Penalty." Thanks, Jude Siciliano, OP
Please write to:........................................
------Central Prison, 1300 Western Blvd. Raleigh, NC 27606
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