Jesuit Brother Bvukumbgwe, who died in 2002, was a composer whose songs are widely used in Church liturgies in Zimbabwe. One who knew him wrote:


Many of his songs come to him in his dreams at night. He would rise from his bed, sing or hum them into a cassette and go back to sleep. In the morning he played the cassette to his singers who then produce the song. While driving me to his village, he would be lost in his musical thoughts and his fingers and hands on the steering wheel would sometimes keep time with his thoughts. … The rhythm … improvises on the theme carrying it to new depths of meaning and experience.

Bvukumbgwe experienced the music first in his mind and then shared it with others and it finally became a song captured on a cassette. Mary, also, first experienced something beyond words and immediately went ‘in haste’ to share it with Elizabeth and finally the news became something written down and shared with the world.  

But it was not quite so simple. They fought over how to put it into words for centuries until finally, in 431, they agreed, in a place that is now a ruined city in western Turkey (Ephesus), that she could be called Theotokos, God bearer, that is, Mother of God. 

First comes the experience. Then the putting it into words. People were drawn to Mary, over the centuries, as a way to God, a mother who longed to bring her children to know their need for her Son. The Franciscans, in the fourteenth century, grounded her in human experience by setting up Christmas cribs where children and grown-up children came and contemplated in wonder.

Some five hundred years later (in 1854), the Church tried again to put into words the experience of how Mary must have begun her existence by describing her as ‘Immaculately Conceived’. Many good Christians baulked at this and accused the Catholic Church of inventing something that wasn’t in scripture. But the Church was only trying to express her experience of Mary. Given who she was and what she became, it is not beyond our imagination that, by a special gift of God, she could have experienced the perfection we all long for from the moment she began to live.

And a hundred years later (in 1950) there was yet another attempt to put into words something that the Church, especially the Eastern Church, had experienced from the earliest centuries: that, at the moment of her death, Mary achieved the completion we all instinctively long for. It was expressed in terms of her being ‘assumed’ – bodily – into heaven. Anyone who believes the earliest creeds of the Church, holds ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’ But the Church, drawing again on experience, declared that in the unique case of Mary, her ‘Assumption’ was immediate. She shared in the first fruits (1 Cor 15:23). Even if we knew where she died, which we don’t, we would never find any of her remains. 

An Italian artist, Francesco Botticini, painted The Assumption of the Virgin in 1475. Prominent in the foreground is an empty tomb, reminiscent of the empty tomb of Jesus in the gospels. There is no body and the earthly onlookers are puzzled. Botticini then has our eyes rise to a scene above, representing heaven, where Mary is in glory kneeling before her Son with the whole court of heaven in attendance.  

The importance of Mary, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is that she became the first person to receive the completion of life which was promised by God to all of us from the beginning. This, again, sounds like a lot of words but it is really the experience of love received and given in its fullness.   

We celebrate the feast of the Assumption this Sunday, 20 August. I am grateful to Fr James Hanvey SJ, for his thoughts on this great event in ‘Thinking Faith’. 

Rev 11:19, 12:1-10 1 Cor 15:20-27 Luke 1:39-56

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