Sunday, 14 August 2016

Baptism at the Feast of the Assumption

As I was eating lunch on Monday, I caught the end of a fascinating programme on Radio 4 discussing the meaning of “Character.” It reminded me that this Greek word originally meant a stamp, the sort you would use to make your distinctive mark on the wax seal of a letter or parchment, for example. Your “character” is the type or mould of the person you are.

This resonates with our talk in the Christian Church of being ‘sealed with the Spirit’ or made in the ‘image’ of God, and is quite fitting today as we contemplate what it was that made the Blessed Virgin Mary worthy of such great honour by God, and by extension what that means for Baby Miles as he is imprinted with the character of Christ in Baptism today.

Our Lord appointed Mary as mother of all Christians as he went to the Cross, yet since the Reformation she has become less a figure of unity for Christians than of division. The early Protestants, even the extreme Reformer Calvin among them, were deeply reverential of the Blessed Virgin, as reflected in the retention of many Marian feasts in our own Book of Common Prayer. This is quite different from the cynicism of their successors, often motivated more by tribalistic anti-Catholic sentiment than by any theological motivation. Even the first Reformers, however, were critical of what they saw as mediaeval innovations to the faith, and one of those, in their view, was the feast celebrated throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church today, of Our Lady’s Assumption: namely, the celebration not just of Mary’s death, but of her unique privilege in receiving instant bodily resurrection and unity with Christ in heaven.

Just because the Reformers considered this Feast an innovation does not mean that they were right. It is helpful when such disputes arise in the Western Church, divided as it is between Catholics and Protestants, to look further afield eastward to the unbroken tradition of the Orthodox Church, and further back in time to before the schism of East and West, when the Church was truly one. If we do that, we will find that indeed, there is no written evidence in the tradition for this belief until around the 4th century, other than the hyperbolic stories in some apocryphal pseudo-gospels rejected by the Church. And yet, for all the testimony of Mary’s Assumption we do have from the fourth century onwards, interestingly we have found not a word written against the doctrine. Nobody seemed to find it controversial. What is more, for all the efforts Christians went to from the earliest days to preserve and venerate the relics of the saints, never has anyone ever suggested that they have a relic of Mary. Every tomb speculatively ascribed to her has been empty. The evidence strongly suggests that right from the beginning, Christians believed the Our Lady’s body had passed immediately into heaven when she died.

But enough of the material evidence. Whether you believe this doctrine or not is a matter for your conscience, as far as the Church of England is concerned, since in theory nothing which cannot be proven by reference to Scripture is binding on us. But either way, it is worth thinking about the meaning of the teaching. And so, returning to our theme, what is more convincing to me than the material evidence is the evidence of Mary’s character: that is, the sort of person God had made her to be, the sort of person he had chosen to bear and raise his Incarnate Son.

References to Mary’s character may be scant, but we can make reasonable inferences based on what we know of her Son. It is still nowadays said that all people are born equal, as though children were simply empty vessels waiting to be filled up with character by their family and wider society; but given the last century’s research into genetics and the importance of influences on the baby even within the womb, we should really know better than that. Our inherited characteristics and the physical and mental dispositions of our mothers mean that we are not born equal at all, and that is not even taking into account our unequal birthrights of wealth and education. What this all suggests is that for Jesus to be the person he was, the human person, Mary must have been an exemplary person herself. However one believes God chose her, it was she and no one else who was destined to bear Jesus. And yet she was of no noble pedigree: she was poor and of low status in the eyes of the world. The odds were against her, and still she was chosen.

Mary had the character to say to the angel “Yes - be it unto me according to God’s word:” the character to consent to God’s will. Mary had the character to stand by her Son during the hard times of his ministry and the threat of persecution. Mary had the character to continue believing and to support the Church even after Jesus died. But before that, Mary had the character, when she was already a widow, to endure seeing her only child executed in front of her. I can only begin to imagine the horror of surviving my own child’s death, and perhaps this is the most persuasive meaning behind the doctrine of the Assumption. When Mary’s Son was crucified, it is no exaggeration to say that she was crucified too. God spared her the pain of death because she had already felt it.

I said that we are not born equal. In the world’s terms, that is true. But there is one sense in which we are born equal: and that is in the eyes of God. In the eyes of God, we are born quite equal to Mary, and indeed all the saints: and that is because all humans are born in the same image of God, the same essence of humanity which Christ adopted and so perfected. We are born with that image, that character, imperfectly stamped, fuzzy at the edges and hard to discern. In Holy Baptism, when we like Mary say “yes” to God’s will, he stamps our souls firmly in the character of Christ. Over life, the image gets more and more blurred - by sin - and so in his goodness, Christ gives us his Eucharist, the sacrament of his very body and blood, to impress his image ever more firmly and renew it, sharpening up the edges. And all this leads us to the promise Christ gives all the baptised, which we believe Mary to be the first after him to have received: the promise of Resurrection to eternal life.

Parents and godparents, it is up to you now to give your assent for Miles to receive the character of Christ. You are promising now to bring him up in accordance with that character, and to encourage him as best you can to grow into grow up in the life of the Church, in due course receiving the Eucharist which is his guarantee of eternal life. It is a grave duty but also a source of joy. If you seek an example of someone who has walked that path to perfection, you need look no further than Jesus’ Blessed Mother, whose character led her so faithfully and unbendingly into his eternal Presence. Amen.  

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