Sermon for Sunday 14 August 2022: High Mass
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2022
“She soared triumphantly upwards, exultant and pure, borne off in the moment of her dream’s fulfilment…”
No – that’s not Our Lady I’m referring to there. That is in fact the last paragraph of one the strangest C19th novels I have ever read by Emile Zola. It’s called “The Dream.” At the end of it, the protagonist, a poor girl called Angelique, is taken up into heaven. It’s the only novel I’ve ever read that finishes with an Assumption scene.
It really is very peculiar book indeed. Angelique is a vestment maker and chasuble embroiderer, who lives next door to a cathedral. The novel tells us, “She spent her days in a haze of silk, satin, velvet and cloth of silver and gold. She embroidered chasubles, stoles, maniples, copes, dalmatics, mitres, banners, and veils for chalices and ciboria. But above all there were the chasubles, an unending series of them in their five different colours.”
Although she’s an expert embroiderer, she spends her whole life with her head in the clouds. She’s one of life’s dreamers. She reads too many Medieval legends and imagines one day she will be swept off her feet by a beautiful prince. She lives her life completely disconnected from reality – in what I suppose we would call today a state of complete denial about her prospects.
Indeed that seems to be what Zola the author is criticising – daydreamers who live their lives in the realm of make believe, fantasising about impossible futures and promised paradises. It’s clear Zola thinks those who live by faith are no better – putting their hopes in the fairy tale narratives of the Christian religion and ignoring the reality of the present with all its injustices and frailties.
The peak of his criticism is that final parody assumption scene. Zola ridicules Angelique – a naive young girl, who lived her life trusting in a loving God and the promise of a heaven she cannot see. What other reward could one give such a foolish person other than to whisk them away to the God they had so longed for.
The Assumption we celebrate today is not that of Angelique but, of course, of Our Lady. The parody of a clueless naïve young girl assumed into heaven at the end of her life that Zola creates could not be further from the gritty reality we read about the life of Mary of Nazareth.
For yes, Mary trusts absolutely in the God who called her to be mother of Christ. But this isn’t something that divorces her from life, or like Angelique traps her in a day dream world of make believe. For Mary, her trust in God roots her ever more deeply in the reality and the complexities of human life!
Right from the earliest years of Jesus’ life, Mary is told that a sword will pierce her own soul too. Saying yes to God, consenting to being the Mother of the Messiah is something that would bring heart break and agony for her.
She did not experience the joy of Easter Day before standing at the foot of the cross.
Trusting in God’s promises to her was no fairy tale fantasy, but rather a tough journey of discovery with God, rooted in the realities of this world with all its difficulties and entanglements.
And if that was Mary’s experience of following her Son during her earthly life, then it should come as no surprise that God’s reward for her should be equally real and tangible and corporeal. For we celebrate today that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. The Assumption isn’t just a metaphor, or a myth. Rather it shows us in a concrete way the hope we have for the resurrection life.
God grants to Mary today that experience of his heavenly Kingdom that we ourselves hope for at the end of our lives by virtue of our baptism. For it is through our baptism that we die and rise with Christ.
Once we die, the Christian hope is not that we simply sleep for eternity. Rather, we will be raised from our graves and experience God’s renewal of all things in our resurrected bodies. Mary experiences that now as a pledge and foretaste of what we look to as our reward and hope.
I shan’t spoil the story of Zola’s The Dream and say anything more about it just in case you want to rush out and buy a copy. But it strikes me what we celebrate in the life of Mary today is the complete opposite of that figure of parody and ridicule Zola creates in Angelique.
I can’t think of many people more rooted in the realities of our human condition than Mary. And I can’t think of a way of pointing to the hope the Gospel holds for us than to look to Mary and the reward given her by God at the end of her earthly life. In her we see the real, tenacious, dogged, concrete reality of what it looks like to be saved in Christ, and to taste that fullness of life that we call Resurrection.
Fr Peter Anthony