Ars Praedicandi: Feast of the Assumption, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

On July 20th the Federal Aviation Administration
nuanced the eligibility rules
for what it takes to be recognized as an astronaut. [1]

The rule adjustment comes in the wake of
Sir Richard Branson’s launched into space on July 11th
on his Virgin Galactic rocket plane
along with 2 pilots and 3 Galactic employees.

Branson – bested by 9 days the flight of another billionaire
Jeff Bezos, also aboard his own rocket ship
with 3 companions –
reached a height of almost 70 miles
after a very brief 10 minutes and 10-second flight
at the estimated cost to each passenger
of about $46,000 a second.

Despite being awarded custom made wings by a former astronaut,
the FAA’s new rules seem to disqualify the Bezos four
as real astronauts.
Besides traveling pass the 100-kilometer high edge of space,
the FAA also requires that astronauts
demonstrate activities essential to public safety
or contributory to human space flight safety.

Branson’s pilots would seem to qualify
as they actually flew the Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft,
but it is not evidence that the Branson four
accomplished the required activities.

Bezos New Shephard spacecraft
was fully automated, without even a pilot
so his quartet of space tourists
seem even further away from official astronaut status.

Some of you are probably scratching your heads at this point
wondering where the befuddled homilist is headed here
and others might be amused or maybe offended
by juxtaposing the Feast of the Assumption
with space tourism.

I admit it is a somewhat odd conjunction
of Mariology and rocket science,
but that is because I find today’s feast a touch baffling
(which, of course, is the nature of any mystery).

In the face of mystery, I need to find some trigger, some analogy –
as offbeat as it might appear –
to help me answer that always gnawing question
posed by liturgy and life: So what?
So what is the meaning or value or purpose
of this solemnity of the Assumption?

In order to extract some meaning from this feast
I read the 1950 decree from Pope Pius XII
that elevated the universally held belief in Mary’s Assumption
to the level of church dogma. [2]

The dominant sentiments permeating this document
are both a sense of deep honor
as well as a strong protective instinct.

The earliest title officially bestowed upon Mary by the Church
is Theotokos, “God-Bearer,” “Mother of God,”
confirmed by a 5th-century ecumenical council.

This title is reflected in today’s readings
in the vision from Revelation
where it is the mother with child
that provides hope and protection and salvation
and in Luke’s visitation story
where the expectant Mary is recognized as blessed.

It is Mary’s motherhood that is strongly affirmed
in Pius XII’s papal declaration on the Assumption,
a motherhood that, as the document notes,
was deeply troubled, filled with hardship and sorrow.
It was a parenting marked by a pierced heart,
broken open at the death of her divine son (no. 14).

In some ways the decree from the pope
not only praises Mary for her challenging and graced motherhood,
but shapes this decree about the Assumption
as an act of gratitude,
an act of care,
even an act of protection by her divine son.

In one of the most poignant lines of the decree
the pope echoes a deeply traditional sentiment when he asserts
that “Jesus would have been dishonored if the flesh
that had born him,
would have been reduced to dust” (no. 35)

In that spirit, maybe this feast is the church’s first Mother’s Day,
a feast that declares that the first-born of all creation
could not himself experience a privilege
such as resurrection, or ascension
without also extending that privilege to his own mother.

What could be more natural?
That a child would want her or his parent
to share in their own triumphs and achievements,
especially when that parent
had suffered through so many childhood heartbreaks,
had protected them from so much harm,
and had sacrificed so much so that they could flourish.

A few weeks ago, I presided at the funeral of an old friend,
a kind of second mother whom I had met almost 50 years ago.
In crafting the homily and in dialogue with her 5 living children,
she had lost a teenage son around the time I first met her
and they made it clear that her vocation,
the calling in which she especially reveled, was motherhood:
something she did with unflagging commitment and grace
despite much suffering and loss in her life.

As part of the funeral homily,
the children and grandchildren allowed me to read
a reflection by mother and humorist Erma Bombeck.
In her 1974 Mother’s Day column Bombeck wrote:

When the Lord God was creating mothers, he was into his sixth day of overtime when an angel appeared and said, “you’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

And the Lord said, “have you read the specs on this order? she has to be completely washable, but not plastic. . . have 180 moveable parts. . . all replaceable . . . run on black coffee and leftovers . . . have a lap that disappears when she stands up . . . a kiss that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. . . and six pairs of hands. “

The angel shook her head slowly and said, “six pairs of hands? no way! ” “it’s not the hands that are causing me problems,” said the Lord. “it’s the three pair of eyes that mothers have to have. “That’s on the standard model?” the angel asked.

The Lord God nodded: one pair that sees through closed doors when she asks, “what are you kids doing in there?” when she already knows. Another in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t but what she has to know. And, of course, the ones in front that can look at a child when he goofs up, and says, “I understand and love you” without so much as uttering a word.”

“Lord,” said the angel touching his sleeve gently, “go to bed. Tomorrow is another day.”

“I can’t,” said the Lord. “I’m so close now. Already I have one who heals herself when she is sick, can feed a family of six on one pound of hamburger, and can get a nine-year-old to stand under a shower. “

The angel circled the model of a mother very slowly. “It’s too soft,” she sighed.

“But tough,” said the Lord excitedly. “You cannot imagine what this mother can do.”

“Can it think?” “Not only think, but it can reason and compromise,” said the creator.

Finally the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “It’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “It’s a tear.”

“What’s it for?” asked the angel. “It’s for sadness, joy disappointment, pain, loneliness and pride.”

“You are a genius,” said the angel. But the Lord looked somber and replied, “I didn’t put it there.” [3]

The feast of the Assumption
celebrates the ultimate Mother’s Day gift from a child to a parent,
a child who certainly put a tear in the eye
and a sword in the heart of his blessed mother;
to whom, in turn, he granted the eternal gift of life
and even protection from death itself.

Furthermore, returning to my opening astronautical excursus,
Mary was not a Richard Branson nor a Jeff Bezos.
She didn’t just go along for the ride
on a pricy trip into the heavens
that only billionaires could afford.

What were the new NASA criteria?
Essential to public safety
or contributory to human space flight safety.

Mary’s unassuming ministry began with a suspect pregnancy
that reduced her to a refugee in Egypt protecting her firstborn
and included the loss of a sainted spouse.
Then ministry demands that extracted her son from her life
where she lived on the margins
asking only that we do whatever he tells us (John 2:5)
ultimately summoning her to witness her child’s crucifixion.

This was not a life of passivity
that allowed Jesus to rocket Mary into celestial glory.
Rather she precisely carved a path for others, for us,
providing a tested though difficult journey to salvation
and so paving the way for each of us
to also be raised up free from corruption on the last day.

Yes, the mystery of the assumption
is also a promise to each of us
that, at the end of time, death and resurrection in Christ
will lead to our final vindication from all destruction
whether we be billionaire or beggar.

Over 4 decades ago I had the privilege of meeting a young seminarian
who had quite a musical gift.
At that time I was writing music reviews for a Catholic Newspaper
and happened to write a review of his album released in 1979. [4]
The title song was written for the funeral of a friend’s father
and is frequently still employed in that ritual.

Yet, in the process of shaping this homily
that haunting text and refrain have freshly returned to me
now as the voice of Christ to the mother:
he wished to spare from death’s destruction.
But I also hear it as the voice of Christ to us
who similarly promises that at the ripening of time
we will all be born upon the wings of eagles
and made to shine like his blessed mother
bereft of fear and every darkness or sorrow.

May this holy feast inspire us to live that future now
in this challenging and sometimes uncertain present,
bot only to know in the present moment
the faithfulness of an ever-vigilant son
but to become more and more like him
so that we might raise others up as well,
especially those who mirror the life of Mary,
the marginalized women and little ones
through Christ our Lord.

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