Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for Assumption

Assumption of Mary - Aug. 15, 2010

Readings: Rev. 11:19–12:6; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Lk 1:29-56

In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, there existed a type of literature called "midrash." This is a very important kind of writing. Midrash was a commentary or narrative that "filled in" the gaps that existed in the regular Scripture stories. There were many gaps in these sacred stories that people wondered about and they wanted to know about them. For example, what was going through Abraham’s mind when he was taking his son, Isaac, up the mountain to sacrifice him? What were the reactions of Adam and Eve to being expelled from the Garden of Eden? What was going through Moses’ mind when he was parting the Red Sea? The midrash writer tried to imagine those situations and write about them in a more detailed way. For example, someone asked a teacher why God appeared to Moses in a thornbush and not a more noble plant like a cedar of Lebanon? Rabbi Joshua ben Karhah answered: "To teach you that there is no space free of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush." (Midrash Reader, p. 36)

It’s important for us to know that early Christian literature had many similar writings, although a lot of Christians today are not familiar with them. Early Christians too wanted to "fill in the gaps" in many of the Gospel stories. There were a lot of Midrashim written about Mary, the mother of Jesus: what was the conception and birth of Jesus like? How did she feel seeing the passion and death of Jesus? Did Jesus share any special knowledge with her? One early Christian document, the Gospel of Bartholomew, tries to fill in the relationship between Mary and the Apostles after the Resurrection: "Now the Apostles were together with Mary, and Mary said, ‘Let us stand up and pray.’ And the Apostles all stood behind Mary. She said to Peter, ‘Peter, chief of the Apostles, the greatest pillar, do you stand behind me? Did not our Lord say, The head of the man is Christ, but the head of the woman is man? Therefore stand in front of me to pray. But they all said to her: ‘In you the Lord set his tabernacle and was pleased to be contained within you. Therefore you now have more right than we to lead in prayer.’" (The Other Bible, p. 353) It’s important to know that, even though a writing like this was not accepted into the New Testament list, it was still frequently read by Christians and played a part in shaping their spirituality. We can see that already in the second century Christians were according a high place to Mary in their spirituality.

The Gospel of Bartholomew is a work of religious imagination of 1800 years ago, but in a real way we still continue that same process of "filling in the gaps." However, our world is very different from the 2nd or 3rd century Roman Empire. We ask different questions and are not as attracted as they were to super-physical wonders and powers (visions and fire from the mouth). We are attracted much more to Mary’s human virtues in her struggle along life’s way, virtues and a struggle that we can follow and try to imitate. There’s a lot of good spiritual writing about Mary that’s a kind of modern midrash. I remember that I was first impressed by this in a book by Max Thurian entitled, Mary, Mother of the Lord. (Max Thurian was a co-founder with Roger Schutz of the ecumenical monastery of Taize.) In this book Thurian described Mary as the epitome of the Jewish spirituality of her time—devoted to prayer and assiduous to all the requirements of the faith. Reading that was the first time Mary really came alive to me as a human person whom I could aspire to imitate. I remember a lovely chapter he had, entitled "Daughter of Zion."

Many other authors today have accented similar aspects about her: her spiritual courage in facing the unknown or her perseverance in faith through the passion and death of Jesus or her depth of love in taking John and the other Apostles as her own. Indeed, the Church has proclaimed Mary as our Mother and Model; we are to learn from her. That’s what we celebrate this day.

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