Assumpta est Maria in caelum, gaudent angeli!
Today, in my parish, we not only celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption but also the Feast of Our Lady of Willesden. We’re hoping to apply for a new feast day, which will be on 3 October (the anniversary of her solemn coronation at Wembley during the Marian Year of 1954), but for the time being we honour her on this great day.
The Assumption is a mystery rather like the Resurrection – it happened in the silence of the tomb and without human witnesses. Indeed, we know very little for sure about the circumstances of Mary’s death and assumption. Some sources say that she died in Jerusalem (where people still venerate the tomb of Mary, an empty tomb of course), others in Ephesus (where she lived with St John), and that the Apostles were present. According to St Bridget of Sweden, Mary was assumed into Heaven 15 days after her death; according to another medieval mystic, St Elizabeth of Schönau, this happened on the fortieth day (which is why the Assumption used to be celebrated on 23 September in southern Germany). However many days after her death the Assumption happened, the tradition is that the Apostles found her tomb empty and covered in flowers.
The exact details of the Assumption are not important. What we do know, with the eyes of faith, the testimony of Tradition and the teaching of the Church, is that ‘at the end of her earthly life, the immaculate mother of God, Mary ever-virgin, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.’ On 1 November 1950 Pope Pius XII infallibly defined the Assumption as dogma, as the ‘official’ belief of the Church. In doing so, he was confirming centuries of tradition and devotion.
It was appropriate that the Assumption was defined on All Saints Day (1 November) because the Feast is not just about the unique privileges of Our Lady. It is not simply supposed to increase our love for God’s Mother. The Assumption reminds us of our destiny as saints, if we live according to God’s will and His commandments. Mary was a child of God, a creature like the rest of us. Certainly she was the purest of creatures, but a creature nevertheless. Because of her unique role as Mother of God, she was the first to enjoy the fruits of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. She leads the way, and we one day hope to follow.
In the meantime we can be confident of her maternal help and intercession as we ourselves strive to become saints. Last year, Pope Benedict said: ‘Mary is taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, and with God and in God she is Queen of heaven and earth. And is she really so remote from us? The contrary is true. Precisely because she is with God and in God, she is very close to each one of us. While she lived on this earth she could only be close to a few people. Being in God, who is close to us, actually, "within" all of us, Mary shares in this closeness of God. Being in God and with God, she is close to each one of us, knows our hearts, can hear our prayers, can help us with her motherly kindness and has been given to us, as the Lord said, precisely as a "mother" to whom we can turn at every moment.’
That’s why today’s feast is a celebration for the Universal Church. In particular, we commend ourselves to Our Lady of Willesden this evening. On a personal note, as I prepare to leave the parish in just over a fortnight, I thank Our Lady of Willesden for her maternal assistance during my time here, especially in my preparation for Priestly Ordination. But we all benefit from her presence and example. If, like Mary and with the help of God’s grace, we carry Christ in our hearts, then we can hope for a share of Christ’s Resurrection and Mary’s Assumption.