The Feast is very ancient. It is also of profound importance – for reasons which sometimes are not fully understood. This event is a part of the naturally supernatural progression in the life of the Blessed Virgin of Nazareth. Her Yes, her Fiat of surrendered love, brought heaven to earth. She first responded to the invitation of God given through the Angel. In our popular piety we refer to this event as the Annunciation, the announcing of God’s plan. (Luke 1:26-38)
That exercise of her own human freedom forever changed all human history. She assented to be the Mother of the Lord Jesus, the Savior of the whole world. It opened her up to the glory of heaven. That glory not only came to dwell within her, but she cooperated with grace throughout her whole life. That same loving God who invited her response in the message of an Angel and received her responses throughout her life, received her, body and soul, into heaven.
Mary is thus meant to be the sign and promise of the Church’s future. She also provides the pattern of the Christian life and vocation for all of us. All who will say yes to her beloved Son – and live their lives in that kind of surrendered love – can bear Jesus Christ for the world. They are joined with Mary now – and will join with her in the fullness of that communion of love which she now enjoys in eternity.
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In those few words, all of human history was changed. As we make those words our own, our own histories will begin to change as well. We are invited to give our own assent of freedom to God’s loving invitations of grace.
The Angel proclaimed that Mary was full of grace, filled with the very life and presence of God. She walked in a deep, abiding and intimate relationship with God. He was with her before she even responded to His invitation. God chose Mary, even before Mary chose God. This order is vitally important.
Mary’s Prayer, her Fiat (Latin, let it be done) was a response to the visitation from the messenger of heaven, the angel. It also provides a pattern of prayer for every Christian. It unfolds into a life of praise, her ‘Magnificat.’ This canticle begins with the words in Latin ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum‘ (‘My soul magnifies the Lord‘) and is the Gospel text for the Liturgy during the day on this Feast. (Luke 1:46-55).
The Fiat is more than a prayer and the Magnificat more than a hymn of praise. Together they constitute a lesson book, a guidebook, for how we can live our own lives. This lesson book is desperately needed by contemporary Christians in an age characterized by pride and arrogance, deluded by self-worship and imprisoned by the idolatry it all produces.
The pattern of the life of Mary, the first disciple of the Lord, reveals a trajectory of surrendered love. If we embrace the mystery and meaning of Mary, we will find the meaning of our own lives. We were created out of Love, in Love and for Love. As the beloved disciple John, who stood with her at the Tree of the Cross, reminds us in his first letter, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 Jn 4:16)
Mary said Yes to the invitation to participate in the communion of God’s love. She confronted her own fears and entered into a new way of living; so must we. Christians use the word mystery in a manner quite different than the contemporary west perceives the word. Christian ‘mysteries‘ are not puzzles to be solved, but gifts to be received, in faith.
The Greek word mysterion (later translated sacramentum in Latin) is still the preferred word used for the Sacraments in the Eastern Church, Orthodox and Catholic. They are mysteries of our faith. It is in that light that Mary is also viewed as a mystery; she reveals the very heart of that faith and its inner dynamic. She also teaches us the meaning of our own lives. Like her, we are invited into communion with the Trinitarian God, in and through Jesus Christ.She shows us the way.
Mary lived a life of receiving and giving and giving and receiving. She has been called from the early centuries the God-bearer or Mother of God (which in Greek is Theo-tokos). She brought forth the Word of God. Her Fiat, her humble surrender, led to her Magnificat. Thus she becomes a prototype, showing us the vocation of every human person who says Yes to God’s loving invitations of grace.
Mary’s response reveals the meaning of life. We were made to give ourselves away to the Lord who has given Himself to us – in a Holy exchange. He comes and abides within us. Through Baptism we enter into a new way of living in His Body, the Church. Living in that Church we are called to continue His redemptive mission by giving ourselves in Him for the sake of the world. An early father of the undivided Christian Church, Gregory of Nyssa, once wrote:
“What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for ‘we no longer know Christ according to the flesh’, but He dwells in us spiritually and the father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us.”
When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, she bore within her the Incarnate Word of God as a living tabernacle of love. (Luke 1:38-45) Jesus, the Redeemer in the womb, was already saving the world and Mary, his chosen mother, was already His first disciple. This little Virgin from Nazareth not only experienced the great miracle but became herself a vehicle of grace for others.
Is it any wonder that the early Christians painted her image in the catacombs during their moments of fear, persecution and doubt? They found great inspiration from this little woman of great faith. In her yes they came to understand that ordinary people can change human history. They were inspired to add their own yes, their own fiat to hers.
Justin Martyr and many other early Christian apologists found in her fiat, her obedient Yes to the invitation angel, the undoing of the no – I will not serve – given by the first woman Eve. In one of her very first titles, they called Mary The Second Eve, the mother of the new creation.
In her womb she carried the One whom the biblical authors would call the New Adam. He was born from her as the first born of a new race of men and women who would find a new birth and a new of living and dying, and living again, through His Incarnation, Conception, Nativity, Life, Death and Resurrection.
That same Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, now resides within – and lives His Risen Life through – all those who respond to the invitation of Love, as Mary did. Mary’s choice, her response to the invitation of a God who always respects human freedom, is a singularly extraordinary event in all of human history because it changed history forever. However, it is much more.
It is an invitation to each one of us to explore our own personal histories and to write them anew in Jesus Christ. Mary is a mirror, a reflection, of Some-One, Jesus Christ, her Beloved Son,the Eternal Word sent from the Father who became the Incarnate Word within her. The Savior whom she was privileged to bear for the sake of the world filled her with His grace.
Each one of us, now baptized into Him, is also called to become, in a real sense, full of grace. We are invited to empty ourselves and be filled with the very life of God. The Lord desires to come and take up residence within us and be borne into a world that hungers for His love. Mary shows us the way. She heard the promise, believed, was filled with grace, and conceived the Lord who is Love incarnate.
We can do likewise if we learn to pray, to listen, to hear, and to respond with our own Yes, living our lives in surrendered love. Years ago, I wrote a book of reflections to help Christians of other communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, to more fully discover this gift of Mary for us all. It is entitled The Prayer of Mary, Living the Surrendered Life. The Assumption or Dormition of Mary is not just about Mary. It is also about all of those who say Yes to Jesus Christ. We will experience the fullness of redemption in the Resurrection of the Body and life in the coming Kingdom.