August 15, 2010
Assumption of Our Lady
(Baptism of Maurice Jimmy Hernandez)
Today marks a very significant day. We are celebrating two events in time. Liturgically, we are celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; body and soul into heaven. And on this day, we shall celebrate a Baptism as well. It a great day to share. The mother of all, whom we acknowledge as the first human being to experience salvation in the form we all hope to achieve at the end of time. To share this day; to be baptized this day, is to have the Blessed Mother herself as a guardian for all time.
We all know where little Maurice came from back on the 11th of this month last year, however let’s think about the assumption for a moment; or a little longer, as we all know none of my sermons last a mere moment, especially when I have an excuse to write endlessly as I do today.
Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady's death, nothing certain is known. The earliest known literary reference to the Assumption is found in the Greek work De Obitu S. Dominae. Catholic faith, however, has always derived our knowledge of the mystery from Apostolic Tradition. The dates assigned for it vary between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension. Two cities claim to be the place of her departure: Jerusalem and Ephesus. Both are up for debate, depending on whom you talk to or what resources one uses, though Jerusalem seems to be the most probable spot.
Today, the belief in the Assumption of Mary is universal in both the East and in the West. The Assumption is the oldest feast day of Our Lady; however we don't know for certain how it first came to be celebrated.
Its origin is lost in those days prior to when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine during the third century. At this point, it was some 200 years after every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites that were made holy by His life, death and Resurrection had become pagan temples.
After the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 336, the sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. It was around this time that the "Memory of Mary" was being celebrated. Later it was to become our feast of the Assumption.
One of the traditions about Jesus’ mother centered around what was believed to be the "Tomb of Mary," close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the "Place of Dormition," the spot of Mary's "falling asleep"; or where she had died. Though, all of this is speculation, as there is no reliable information in existence to prove this tradition right or wrong. However, our faith in Church and Apostolic Tradition allows us to continue…..
In the seventh century, it began to be celebrated in Rome under the title of the Dormitio or "Falling Asleep" of the Mother of God. Soon the name was changed to the "Assumption of Mary," since there was more to the feast than only that of her dying. It also proclaimed that she had been taken up, body and soul, into heaven.
That belief was ancient, dating back to the Apostles themselves. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that an empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem near the purported site of her death. That location also soon became a place of pilgrimage. Today, the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition of Mary stands on the spot.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when bishops from throughout the Mediterranean world gathered in Constantinople, Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Juvenal, to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that "Mary had died in the presence of the Apostles; but her tomb, when opened later upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.
In the eighth century, St. John Damascene was known for giving sermons at the holy places in Jerusalem. At the “Tomb of Mary”, he expressed the belief of the Church on the meaning of the feast: "Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay. . . . ." he says.
The Assumption completes God's work in her since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, should ever undergo corruption. The Assumption is God's crowning of His work as Mary ends her earthly life and enters eternity.
In 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary a dogma of the Catholic Church in these words: "The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven." Thus culminating what was already believed.
The Son that Mary bore, as we all know, is our Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, went to the River Jordan to see his cousin, John, born of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. When Jesus met John, he asked him to baptize him. John questioned this. “Why should the Son of God come to me and asked to be Baptized? I am not even worthy to untie his sandels! It is I who should be Baptized by him!” Jesus simply tells John to let be so for now.
Jesus is obviously making a statement by his actions. He is clearly stating that he wants us to be Baptized as well. In a long and hard theology known as “Original Sin”, the Apostles and thus the Church, took Jesus’ actions to mean that we should get “jump started” into our life of salvation by being Baptized. It creates a fresh start and a wonderful memory. Though, infants usually do not remember the moment, the parents do.
As humans, we need moments of memory and times to look forward to, even if we have a slightly twisted way of going about it sometimes. As an example there is, T.G.I.F. Thank God It’s Friday. People have been offering this secular prayer of thanksgiving for years, and the phrase has become so popular that it’s attached to a restaurant chain, T.G.I. Friday’s.
This phrase is based on the belief that people are happier on Friday, the end of the work week. Would you respond enthusiastically to a restaurant that tried to lure you with the words “Give Me More Mondays”? Probably not. People talk about their “Monday morning blues,” and they hum the tune “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Mondays are supposed to bring you down.
But what if they don’t? Recent research has uncovered that people are not much happier on Fridays than they are on Mondays. They really aren’t. Fact is, our moods do not change very dramatically over the course of the week. But we remember Fridays as happy days because of the meaning and emotions we attach to Fridays. Friday is when we’re liberated from the chores of the work week. It’s when we turn from business to pleasure. It’s when the door to the weekend is thrown wide open. Not that weekends have the value they once had.
These are the meanings and emotions we attach to Friday. Friday has connotative and emotional significance and it affects and shapes our memory of how we actually felt on a particular Friday. Because we believe that Fridays are happy days, we remember them as happy days. Except for maybe those superstitious days known as Friday the 13th.
A bride says that her wedding day was the happiest day of her life. In fact, it was incredibly stressful, but the meaning of marriage turns it into a happy memory. A man says that the birth of his first child was a pure joy. Truth is, it was absolute misery to watch his wife suffer through labor, but the meaning of childbirth makes the memory a positive one, even if he does pass out at the sight of the blood. An adult convert to Christianity says that his baptism was wonderful. The reality is that it was wet, cold and uncomfortable, but the meaning of the sacrament makes it deeply moving to him. Just ask any infant that has been terrorized by their parents forcing them to go to the nasty Priest who douses them with cold water. Let’s get rid of that nasty Original Sin. Spaaalashhh! No wonder some of the infants cry like the boy Damien in the movie the Omen. This insight can help us to better understand the significance of what happened to Jesus in the Jordan River. We have a special day in the Church year, the Sunday after Epiphany, called “Baptism of the Lord,” and it gives us an opportunity to remember this event and reflect on its impact. It’s a perfect example of how meaning shapes memory. So just what do we remember about the day? John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the city of Jerusalem and all Judea flock to him, and are baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. After years of living with a filthy buildup of sin and unrighteousness, the people of the region are relieved to be washed clean and made right with God. What a wonderful cesspool of sin the Jordan must have been when John was finished! This feels very good to them. John’s providing a much-needed spiritual service, and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear the people saying, T.G.F.J. — Thank God For John. But then John switches gears and reveals that he’s not simply in the purification business. He proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. So, quite obviously, he is proclaiming a new life to come. Let’s face it, here’s John the Baptist, not so neat, not so clean, with a wild appearance, demonstrating the spirit of inclusiveness to all the sinners coming to him (except for maybe Herrod and his harlot second wife, so the story goes). At one time John might even have been called a hippie. John might find himself today as one who’s standing on the outside looking on, or in, at the great event available to everyone but him. But in this story, here is this wild-looking guy that God chooses to baptize his Son, Jesus Christ. John is included and doing something wonderful. What a gift to the sinners looking on! I can imagine them saying, “Hey, he’s one of us … look at what he’s doing ... maybe there is hope for us.”
When we look at the actual events that occurred at the Jordan, we see a variety of emotions. There’s gratitude for the gift of forgiveness. Surprise and shock at the sight of the baptizer’s camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and wild honey. Certainly some confusion about the identity of the powerful one who’s coming after John. So the actual experience of John’s ministry is a jumble of emotions, not a carefully crafted stained-glass picture of pure joy and happiness that we think of it. All of this changes when Jesus comes on the scene, because meaning has a powerful effect on memory. Mark tells us that Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized by John in the Jordan, and just as he is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased”. If that happens today while we Baptize Maurice, we are all in trouble! This is the meaning of baptism: Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. The mix of feelings up to this point — gratitude for cleansing, surprise at the baptizer’s clothing, confusion about the identity of the powerful one — are suddenly pushed aside. In their place, a new emotion emerges: joy. When Jesus is baptized, we are filled to overflowing with a feeling of joy that God has revealed his Son, announced his love and proclaimed just how pleased he is with Jesus.
The meaning of baptism is that God accepts Jesus as his Son, and the happiness we feel over this acceptance shapes our entire memory of baptism. Gone is the mix of emotions that were felt by the people at the Jordan River, replaced by deep joy that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. Jesus is now, for us, the Word of God in human form; the Way, the Truth and the Life. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. After witnessing his baptism, we don’t have to wonder any longer about who Jesus is. We know his true identity. The very same is true for us, as we remember our own baptism. In this sacrament, we are connected to the body of Christ; the universal community of Christians that’s nothing less than the flesh-and-blood physical presence of Jesus in the world today. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” asks the apostle Paul. “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his”. In this sacrament, we become children of God, no less loved and accepted than Jesus Christ himself. This is the meaning of baptism: Baptism connects us to the body of Christ. It enables us to die and rise with Jesus. It makes us dead to sin and alive to God. It gives us new and everlasting life, and a freshly minted identity as children of a loving Lord. It marks our soul as belonging to God. It’s an experience that shapes our memory forever. We make a mistake, however, if we believe that baptism is always the beginning of a lifetime of perfect bliss. Think about what happens immediately after the baptism of Jesus; Mark tells us that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus “out into the wilderness,” where he is tempted by Satan for 40 days. Then his Galilean ministry begins, and Jesus comes face to face with a man with an unclean spirit, a woman with a fever, a steady stream of people who are sick or possessed by demons, and Chief Priests challenging his ministry and trying to have him killed. So there’s no rest for the freshly baptized. Pastor Joy McDonald Coltvet discovered this for herself when she led a group of youths on an immersion trip to Mexico. A number of times through the first days there, different young people came to her and confessed how overwhelmed they felt. Said one student, “I feel like I’m drowning.” This student was experiencing the flood of the world’s pain — and that’s not a bad thing. That’s why it’s called an “immersion” trip. Coltvet says that it’s when we feel like we’re drowning; overwhelmed by the flood of the world’s anguish, pain and loss; that “we are reminded that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.” Then we realize that “baptism is daily dying and being raised to new life.” Then we discover that we are “raised up, gasping for air, and the breath of God fills us.” When we feel like we’re drowning in the world’s pain, we are raised up, and the breath of God fills us. That’s not just a memory of baptism, it is a memory shaped by meaning. Like birth, baptism means life. It’s done once, yet it is for all of our life. ...We need to discover ways to communicate baptismal living. More than anything else, baptism marks our birth as Christians. It involves a process that is every bit as wet and messy as the physical birth that brought us into this world, but it is also every bit as permanent. Through baptism, we are identified as children of God who are both loved and lovable, chosen by the Lord to be his people in the world. “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now,” wrote Cardinal Henri Nouwen, “is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.” The chosen child of God. This is not just Jesus … it is each one of us. Precious. Beloved. Safe in an everlasting embrace. Our true identity. Make this your memory of baptism.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.