Marveling at Mary

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption.

One of the dangers which faithful Catholics are constantly exposed to is moralism. Moralism is the reduction of every aspect of our faith to its moral dimension. Faced with a culture which is often morally indifferent, which says that we should do what feels right rather than what is in fact right, the temptation for faithful Catholics is simply to double down on the dos and don’ts, the shoulds and musts. But while the moral dimension of our faith is indispensable, it is actually secondary and flows from a much more fundamental dimension. To put it first is to put the cart before the horse, and to focus on it exclusively is to have only a cart, and no horse to pull it.

We can see this on display when we think about the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is a tendency to reduce Mary, even among faithful Catholics, to a model of morality—the greatest model of morality, mind you, but only a model of morality, nonetheless. Thus, Mary is presented as a model of humility and obedience. Her virtues are extolled and praised, as they should be. But sometimes we leave it at that. Mary is humble, and so should we be. Mary was obedient to the will of God, and we should be too. But reducing any aspect of our faith, or any central figure in our faith—like Mary, to their moral dimension, rarely inspires or provokes wonder. It often makes our faith seem like a cold, rigid, and lifeless thing.

An important philosophical truth, one which moralism forgets, is that doing flows from being. What a thing is comes first; how we ought to use that thing comes second. “Shoulds,” in other words, come from “ises.” And it is what a thing is—what a thing really is in all its truth, goodness, and beauty—that inspires and provokes wonder. This is what Pope St. John Paul II was trying to do, for example, in his Theology of the Body. If we know what the body is; if we know what human sexuality is in all its truth, goodness, and beauty; if we are inspired by how God created us male and female; if we marvel at God’s plan for bringing new life into the world; then how we ought to use this great gift becomes apparent. The Church’s teaching on sexuality no longer becomes a restrictive imposition, but a liberating truth.

Similarly, before they offer any moral implications, our readings today invite us to marvel at who Mary is as the new ark of the covenant. “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.” So begins our first reading. And then what that ark is, or rather who it is, is immediately identified: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” The old ark of the covenant, the one which God instructed Moses to make, contained three things: the ten commandments, a portion of the manna, and the staff of Aaron, the high priest. Mary is the new ark of the covenant because these same three things can be found in the child whom she carried in her womb. This child, Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of the ten commandments, because He is the very Word of God. He is the fulfillment of the manna, because He is the Bread of Life. And He is the fulfillment of the staff of Aaron, because He is the eternal High Priest.

Our gospel invites us to further marvel at this fact of Mary as the new ark of the covenant. Before King David brought the old ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, it stayed in the hill country of Judah for three months. And when David came into the presence of the ark, he leaped and danced for joy. This is also what happens with Mary. Mary also stays in the hill country of Judah for three months while visiting her cousin Elizabeth. And when John the Baptist comes into the presence of the ark, he too leaps for joy, even as David did. Mary truly is the new ark of the covenant; she is the bearer of God’s presence. In Mary, God is delighted to dwell. And that is why God took her, body and soul, into heaven, at the end of her earthly life. God ordered the old ark of the covenant to be made from a particular type of wood—wood from the acacia tree—because this type of wood was thought to be incorruptible, incapable of ever rotting. If God didn’t want the old ark of the covenant to ever experience decay, then how much more would He desire this for the new ark of the covenant, Mary. For the old ark was only a shadow of the incomparably better ark which was to come. God did not want this new and better ark to know decay, and so, at the end of Mary’s earthly life, He took her body and soul into heaven.

Marveling at this fact of who Mary is—filled with wonder that this lowly handmaid of Nazareth is the new ark of the covenant, the bearer of God’s presence—it’s easy to see why Satan would want to drive her far away. “Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth.” Satan hates Mary. And he wants to drive her far away from our churches and our homes. He hates her, and tries to drive her away, because where Mary is, there also is her Son. Devotion to Mary, the new ark of the covenant, always leads us to a great devotion to the Word of God and the Bread of Life. It also leads us to greater wiliness to offer sacrifice, which is the quintessential priestly act. Satan does not want us to pray with Scripture, receive the Holy Eucharist worthily, or offer sacrifice. And, so, he tries to drive Mary far away. If he can get Mary out of our homes and our churches, then he can get us to abandon our faith. Besides Mary, Satan hates two other things: the family and the Church. But Satan knows that the best way to destroy the family and the Church is to drive Mary far away.

Conversely, the best way to protect our families and the Church is to stay close to Mary. And now the moral implications become clear. Now we can bring out the cart and hook it up to the horse. If we first know who Mary is, and marvel at her as the new ark of the covenant, the important role she has in our lives becomes abundantly clear. The Church’s teaching that we should have a devotion to Mary can now be seen, not as an imposition, but as a natural and logical consequence of who she is. So let us stay close to Mary, and she will keep us close to her Son. Let us not just see her as a model of morality. Let us be filled with awe and wonder at who she is: the new ark of the covenant, the bearer of God’s presence—and not just back then, two-thousand years ago, but here today, and forever in heaven. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.