Eucharist – 16th August – The Blessed Virgin Mary
Link to Service – https://youtu.be/V7MtfCFHsMI
Yesterday, 15 August, was celebrated by many Christians (mainly but not exclusively Roman Catholic) as the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary: that’s the one for which our neighbours across Wood Street are dedicated. Their building, like ours, must have been built in the early 1960’s, and was therefore perhaps one of the earliest with this designation, because the dogma (which means particular teaching, for all to believe) came in only in 1950. That surprised me, when I looked it up, because I’d first hear of it when I was at university in the 1970’s, and studied both a mass set to music by the great 16th century Italian composer Palestrina and its fore-running motet (= anthem) with words from the service, sung on the evening before. So, even before the Assumption was formally added to the calendar of feasts, people had been singing and praying for hundreds of years, as if it already was. So what difference did it make to add it?
Well, Palestrina was the official composer of the Vatican, writing beautiful stuff in strict accordance with the musical rules laid down in the Council of Trent. Before that, lots of church music had got a bit sloppy, and the words (which are really what matters) were often difficult to make out, especially in big echoey churches. There was a lot more to the Council than music, of course, and its purpose was to counter the Reformation – Henry VIII, and all that. If there was already a popular devotion to the Virgin Mary of this kind, why not exploit it to emphasise the church’s ancient foundation through succession from the Apostles, against those Protestant ‘upstarts’? Palestrina used not only the words but the same basic tunes set in the days of Pope Gregory, and so made it ancient and modern. It might be stretching the point, but the teaching about Mary it encapsulates is all to do with continuity: that, once she had accepted, and conceived of, God’s word, her body would never see death, but (one day) be carried off straight into heaven. Personally, I’m not too sure about that: and it’s not something required of all Anglicans (although some would like it to be). And it’s not like the Ascension of Christ which happened not instead of death, but after it, to a body already utterly changed by the power of the Resurrection. But millions of faithful people accept the bodily Assumption of Mary as essential, since, having once held Christ’s body within it, then “had no place in the grave”.
That bothers me, a bit, despite following logically from the doctrine of the Immaculate (=sinless) Conception (of Mary, not Christ!), also believed in for centuries, but only insisted upon since 1854. You can’t really have one without the other: and me, I’m suspicious of both. It feels too much like an organisation under threat (this time the Church from secularisation) asserting its power through the manipulation of popular piety. Courting popularity is a danger no church is immune to, especially in difficult times. So remember! There is more to faith than fearfully doing what you are told, if the mighty would only come down from their thrones, and risk letting you (like Mary) freely and fully choose love.