I am delighted to be able to post a copy of Fr. Hall's sermon, delivered on the feast of the Assumption of our Lady last week.
Wakefield Chantry: Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption 2012
Signum magnum apparuit in coelo: mulier amicta sole, et luna sub pedibus eius, et in capite eius corona stellim duodecim.
In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen
For those of you not familiar with the traditional form of the Roman Rite, don’t worry – I’m not going to preach in Latin.
Our Mass today began with the opening verse of the twelfth chapter of the Revelation to St John – the book of the Apocalypse. And in the midst of the woes and calamities, the broken seals and trumpet blasts that the book contains – a happy hunting ground through the ages, it has to be said, not just for mystics but also for heretics and lunatics – we find these words:
And now, in heaven, appears a great portent; a woman that wore the sun for her mantle, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars about her head. She had a child in her womb, and was crying out as she travailed, in great pain of her delivery. Then a second portent appears; a great dragon, fiery red, with seven heads and ten horns…And he stood fronting the woman who was in childbirth, ready to swallow up the child as soon as she bore it. She bore a son, the son who is to herd the nations like sheep with a crook of iron; and this child of hers was caught up to God, right up to his throne, while the mother fled into the wilderness, where God had prepared a place of refuge for her, and there .. she is to be kept safe.
The Liturgy of the Mass claims this passage for Our Lady on this feast of her Glorious Assumption. The Fathers of the early Church, and Bible scholars today, were not all convinced that this was the Blessed Virgin Mary that was being depicted. For some, this Heavenly Woman represents Israel, the community from which the Messiah was to come. For others, she represents the Church, glorious in heavenly eyes, but persecuted here and now.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in that argument, but I will just say a couple of things. First, this is St John who is having this vision, and I want you to recall how Our Lord refers to his mother in St John’s gospel – he calls her “woman” – at the wedding at Cana – “woman, why are you bothering me about the wine list?” – and his words from the cross – “woman, behold your son” – as he hands her over to the care of St John.
And – my second point – in that word, that pregnant word, “woman”, St John indicates that we are to view Our Lady as the New Eve, the one who symbolises and sums up in herself both Israel and the Church.
But what I really want us to think about this evening is how this woman is described in this first-century text: clothed in the sun, standing on the moon, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head. I want to suggest that this speaks, both then and now, of the triumph of Our Lady and her Divine Son, over all that nature and supernature has to offer.
Somebody picking up this book in the first century, and reading this verse, would have heard a little bell ringing in their head – perhaps a whole peal of bells. And depending on their background, they would have understood different things.
If their background was Jewish, they would immediately have thought of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis – the ones that deal with the creation of the world. Because we read there that when God created light, he gathered some of it together to make a great light to shine by day, and a smaller light to rule the night – the sun and the moon. And by the way, he made the stars as well.
When we read Genesis today, our thoughts are full of the interface between science and religion – and that’s another place I don’t want to go today. But those chapters were written when the Jews were held captive in Babylon, surrounded by a religion that worshipped the gods of the sun, moon and stars.
The first chapter of Genesis tells God’s people in the sixth-century BC that however bad their current circumstances, their God is in control. Their captives, the Babylonians, were ruled by the sun and the moon. Well, our God made them! Oh, and he made the stars as well!
And now this heavenly revelation says that there is a woman, and her child, who share in this divine mastery over the cosmic powers.
If the reader came from a Greek or Roman background, different bells would have rung. Listen to this account of the birth of Apollo, the god traditionally associated with the sun:
Leto had become pregnant by Zeus. The dragon Python foresaw that this child, a son, would replace him as ruler over the oracle at Delphi. He sought to kill the child at birth, but the north wind and Poseidon came to help Leto. She gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, and Apollo slew the dragon.
A first-century Greek or Roman would have got the message. Here is a woman who, because of the son she bears, is greater than the gods of the sun and the moon. What has happened in history – what we shall sing in a few moments – et incarnates est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est – has brought into our history what previously only existed in myth. The glory of the noonday sun is now a fitting mantle for this heavenly woman. And this woman stands on the moon. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that Our Lady is like the moon, because her glory is reflected glory. But this passage goes even further. The moon is the great symbol of Artemis, whom the Romans called Diana. And one of the most famous shrines to Artemis in all of the ancient world was at Ephesus, which just happens to be the place that St John had gone, with the woman entrusted to him by Our Lord on the cross.
And the 12 signs of the Zodiac, that for the Jews symbolised the 12 tribes of Israel, and for the pagans spoke of the astrology that ruled their lives, that formed the crown of stars worn by Juno, the Roman queen of heaven, they now adorn the brow of the one who truly is Regina Caeli
Bells, and peals of bells. And I could go on. (Just ask my family). Other bells would have rung if you were a Persian, or an Egyptian.
But if this is to be more than just of academic interest, then we need to hear the Gospel that speaks from this verse.
What, for us, do the sun, moon and stars symbolise? What are the powers, heavenly or otherwise, that dominate our lives?
That’s a very personal question, and I should be honoured if you would spare five minutes tonight or tomorrow to think about your own answer. But let me just set a few hares running.
I have a CD by the pop group “There may be giants” called “Here comes Science” – a series of songs to teach children some basic facts about our world. Two of them have to do with the sun. “Why does the sun shine” starts, “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace”. “Why does the sun really shine?” says, “the sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma, the sun’s not simply made out of gas, no, no, no!”.
We live in a world where science rules, and thank God for the discoveries from which we benefit in so many ways. But when science exalts itself to a god-like status, and says of the world, “this is all there is”, we need to think of the woman with child, clothed with the sun.
And if I started listing songs which have “moon” in the title, we’d be here all night. The moon is mystery, and romance, and hopes, and dreams. And thank God for those things that enrich our lives. But when they take over, and become our master, our mistress, then we need to think of the woman with child, standing on the moon.
And astrology has never gone away. But neither has politics – how fascinating that the flag of the European union has… twelve stars. And for many of our young people, and some old enough to know better, their dream, their motivation, is to become a celebrity, to be a star.
There is one who wears those stars in her crown, the one whose feast we celebrate today. Mary, the New Eve, the fulfilment of Israel, the mother of the Church; Mary, assumed into heaven, who, with her divine Son, fulfils and completes and transcends the dreams and desires of every race and nation, every man and woman – including our own. To God be glory for ever and ever.