This day we are gathered to celebrate the feast day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven:
The bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life, as it was long accepted by the faithful and frequently depicted in art, as on the main altar in the church of the Capuchin friary in Schwyz (Switzerland), was relatively recently defined as church dogma in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XXII in 1950.
For the painter, it was likely an appreciation for and recognition of an exceptional woman, the mother of historic Jesus – an expression of the experienced holiness of Mary.
In Christianity, holiness is the place where the profane and the sacred meet, “a religious experience, which is based on extraordinary strengths held by human being that give him or her special religious authority” (Filoramo, 2013).
In today’s gospel text (Luke,1.46-55) we read the words of the magnificat, the excerpt of a conversation between Mary and Elisabeth attributed the them for 2000 years. Mary sees herself as an insignificant woman, chosen to bear a child that will eventually be called son of God. Thus, we have a internalized/embodied experience for the joining of the profane and the sacred.
In my understanding of the magnificat, Mary shares with Elisabeth a very personal experience of God. However the words, passed on by Luke and his translators, touch me as strange and out of date. I asked myself several times how a contemporary woman would express what Mary wanted to say.
People today are more self-aware. They no longer call themselves handmaiden or servant; those expression carry disparaging connotations. The powerful no long sit on thrones, but on office chairs in corporate headquarters; the hungry become more numerous every year, and even the countless private and public aid organizations do not seem to be able to correct that trend. The media report that the rich become wealthier by the year, and the economic gap opens even further. Israel is far away and a global hotspot for crises. How many of us would still identify and recognize themselves as seeds of Abraham?
Therefore, I can no longer grasp so much of what Mary testified so long ago. I see very few hints in history since then for the fulfillment of her vision of a better world and more social justice.
Mary’s holiness does not manifest in unconditional subservience as a woman, despite the fact that this condition continues to persist as a powerful male fantasy in many societies and through ages. Her passive role, in which the “mighty hath done to me great things”, fades in the light of a more active attitude towards life.
A woman like Mary appears to me much more powerful through humbly acknowledging her own weaknesses, and yet retaining her agency and recognizing her will to serve God. Saying “yes” to God’s will in every day life, commitment to a calling, modelling the love for all human beings and creatures will better define a form of holiness; even so when human weakness hinders us to practice it in perfection.
Such an active attitude fits better with my personal image of God, which is grounded in the All-Loving; a clear distinction from the All-Mighty. Power always needs to be endured, and – as it often goes along with violence – suffered. Love, on the other hand, is being experienced, nourishes people, and fosters community.
A person embracing soul and spirit is more than a willing consumer. It is an active person contributing to the common good. She shows engagement. Thus we can reduce the control by those obsessed with power und strengthen the loving, the divine.
The All-Loving is also the source of the mercy mentioned in the magnificat. I believe that is true for all people, not just Israel. The source text of the scripture was written in a very specific cultural context and intention.
However, today we live in a globalized world. Nationalist and cultural/ethnic exclusions need to be critically questioned. God created humans, all the same, as men and women, and every person carries that of God within.
Hence, I reframed the magnificat for myself the following way:
„Meine Seele erhebt die Schöpferkraft, * und mein Geist freut sich über Gott, meinen Beistand; "My soul magnifies the power of Creation, * and my spirit rejoices in God, my advisor; Ich muss Gott nicht fürchten * wegen meiner menschlichen Schwächen; I must not fear God * for my human weaknesses; Ich kann und will gottesfürchtig sein * mit meinen Stärken, umgeben von Gottes Liebe, I can and want to fear God * with my strengths, surrounded by God's love, damit ich Zeugnis ablege für Gott * und als Vorbild diene allen Menschen. in order to testify for God * and to serve as role model for all people. Gottes Barmherzigkeit währt von Generation zu Generation über alle, * die Gottes Wille suchen. God's mercy lasts from generation to generation * for all who seek God's will. Gottes Kraft schafft Grosses: * Verschwenderische finden keine Bedeutung in ihrem Tun; Divine power has done great things: * the lavish find no meaning in their action; Machtbesessene verlieren ihren Einfluss * und Dienende werden anerkannt; the power-hungry loose their influence * and those serving get recognition; Bescheidene werden mit Zufriedenheit gesättigt * und Gierige bekommen nie genug. the humble are being nourished through content * and the greedy will never get enough. Gott hat sich aller Menschen angenommen, * um der Barmherzigkeit zu gedenken, God has looked after all people * to remembrance of the mercy die uns zusteht vom Anfang an * und bis in alle Zukunft!“ that we are qualified for since the beginning * and into the future!"
Through these words, Mary can still today touch me as an exemplary woman, as embodied holiness. Her extraordinary strength and spiritual authority still radiate for many faithful, both among Christians and Muslims.
I wish you all an inspiring and blessed holiday.
Let us pray today for the strength
- to find the places in our lives where the profane and the sacred join.
- to continuously and actively seek God’s will despite our human weaknesses.
- to accept Mary as our role model, so we can pass on the unconditional love we experience to foster community and peace.
- to recognize the mother within in order to serve for the well-being of all.
- to testify our faith through action and attitude.
Let us live our lives as testimony to the unconditional Godly love today and every day,
(Own translation of thoughts spoken on August 15, 2013 at the church of the Capuchin Friary in Schwyz (Switzerland))
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