The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench


Homily for August 15, 2010: Vigil of the Assumption

posted by jmcgee

mother_of_the_word.gifYears ago, a friend gave me a holy card with an unusual depiction of the Blessed Mother. She is visibly pregnant, and reading from a book – praying from scripture. As my friend explained to me: it’s a great image for a writer. It shows Mary reading the word, while carrying The Word. The Word is within, and without.

When I was in formation, studying to become a deacon, I taped that image inside my binder, and it was always with me when I went to class. Later, when I gave my first homily at St. Josephat’s in Bayside, I was surprised to see a similar image in a stained glass window near the altar. It depicts the Annunciation, with Mary once again reading an open book at the moment of conception. It shows Mary’s great devotion to the word, in every manifestation.

I thought of that image again when I read over this evening’s gospel. It’s one of the more challenging passages in scripture. I imagine a lot of people hear this reading from Luke, as we’re about to celebrate one of the great Marian feasts, the Assumption, and are taken aback. A woman in the crowd calls out, praising the womb that bore him and the breasts that nursed him. But then Jesus seems to change the subject.

“Rather,” he replies, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

This hardly sounds like high praise for the Blessed Mother. But that’s exactly what it is.

He is talking about the woman who heard the word, who read the word, who observed the word, and who carried the Word – and who responded at every moment of her life with a word of her own: “Yes.”

And if you want to dissect this scripture passage even further, I think it comes down to this: Mary’s sanctity was more than a matter of biology. It was much more than her physical reality. Making the Word incarnate involved than just shared DNA.

No. It was a matter of faith.

And: as it was with Mary, so it can also be with us.

Henri Nouwen, I think, understood that. He was a Dutch priest, scholar, and academic who taught at Yale and Harvard for several years in the 1970s and ’80s. But Nouwen felt called by God to do something else with his life. He struggled with it, and prayed over it, for many years, and finally found the answer with the group L’arche, founded by the great Canadian, Jean Vanier. L’arche cares for the mentally and developmentally disabled. And so it was that Henri Nouwen, this deep-thinking writer and intellectual, spent the last years of his life bathing those who could not bathe themselves, feeding them, celebrating the sacraments with them, and seeing in them the beautiful face of Christ.

I think Henri Nouwen, in many ways, also “heard the word of God and observed it.” And I think he also felt a profound connection to Mary’s simplicity and humanity. In one of his journals, he describes meeting a priest who summed up Mary’s meaning to the world so beautifully. “To look at Mary,” this priest said, “is to see God’s original plan for humanity.” As Nouwen explained, “In her, we see the way God wanted us to be…Mary shows us how to receive the marvelous gift of God’s love, and how to respond to God’s redemptive action in our lives.”

Looked at that way, I think the Assumption takes on an even deeper meaning.

If Mary does indeed show us “God’s original plan for humanity,” so does her glorious Assumption. In the Assumption, preserved forever before the face of God, freed from the corruption of the grave, Mary not only fulfills her great destiny – but also offers us a beautiful glimpse of our own. This is what God wants for us. This is what He dreams for us. This is His desire and design for the world.

The Assumption offers us that promise – and that hope.

Our prayer on the eve of this feast is to be worthy of it, to model ourselves on the Mother of God – in all her holiness, in all her humility. It means saying “Yes” to God and working, as Jesus said, “to hear the word of God and observe it.” That means, very simply, to live it. To embrace it. To desire, like Mary, to bring the Word into the world.

It has nothing to do with biology, or DNA.

It is everything to do with trust. With love. With obedience.

And, as I said before, it is all a matter of faith.

As Henri Nouwen once put it so beautifully: “A faith in him who became flesh in her, a faith that makes it possible for him to become flesh in us, too.”

Image: “Mother of the Incarnate Word” by Fr. William Hart McNichols



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ron chandonia

posted August 14, 2010 at 9:53 am


What a beautiful homily–to accompany a beautiful image of Mary! Thanks so much for it. I’m going to recommend it to my students in diaconate formation here in Atlanta.



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John Knight

posted August 14, 2010 at 10:38 am


Jean Vanier may well live in France and is certainly great, but he’s not a “great Frenchman.” He’s a great Canadian! His father, a general in the Canadian Armed Forces, ended his life – literally – as Canada’s Governor General. Both his parents are candidates for sainthood. And I like the homily very much. Thank you.
[Ack! Thanks, John. My bad! I'll fix. Dcn. G.]



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Deacon Norb

posted August 14, 2010 at 10:53 am


Now for another surprise ?
Take a real REAL good look at any image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Note where she wears her “belt.” It is not at her waist but up in the lower chest area — exactly where you would expect a pregnant lady from a primitive culture anywhere in the world to wear a cord like that.
The funny thing is that the Hispanic community here in the US knows all about the symbolism here in this image but is fairly quiet about it. They only rarely share the understanding of why that cord is where it is with their Anglo neighbors. My “compadre,” a Hispanic deacon I see almost daily (in fact, the godfather/padrino of one of my daughters) was the one who shared that insight with me.
So quiet has that teaching been that a lot of Anglo priests often scoff at that notion when they first hear of it. Imagine that!
[I'd heard that, Norb -- and it IS pretty unusual, especially when one considers The Artist behind that remarkable image! Dcn. G.]



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Deacon Randy Hyde

posted August 14, 2010 at 10:47 pm


What beautiful words….Always enjoy your homilies….dreh + + +



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l farrell

posted August 15, 2010 at 2:19 pm


Well, every time I see an early Saint depicted reading a book I remember hearing there were no “books” then, only scrolls. The books came after Guttenberg. Not that it matters.
I think they call that an anachronism.
I love hearing that seeing our Blessed Mother in her purity is seeing God’s original plan for humanity. I never heard it put that way. Thanks.
I’m going to post that thought on face book.



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Deacon Norb

posted August 15, 2010 at 5:25 pm


I farrell
I have to dispute that assertion completely.
The “CODEX” (a bound volume with manuscript leaves sewed into it like pages in modern book) existed from at least the start of the fourth century. In fact, five of the every earliest manuscript copies we have of the New Testament are not SCROLLS but CODICES (plural of CODEX). Those five all date between 325 and 400 ce.
My friend, I know what I am talking about. My PhD is on the earliest roots of the Bible in English and the manuscripts I studied (all dating between 1360 and 1425 and currently in manuscript libraries in England) were all CODICES of manuscript pages.
The problem with SCROLLS is that there was an effective limit as to how long a SCROLL could be — and that was the length of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. You could not roll a parchment up much longer



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Deacon Norb

posted August 15, 2010 at 5:45 pm


To follow up on my earlier post — here is the list of the oldest manuscripts we have and all were written between 320 and 400 ce.
**Codex Vaticanus [B] A fairly intact collection of both Jewish and Christian Scriptures written in Greek about 320 ce. This manuscript was given to the Vatican by the Greek Church in the 14th Century.
**Codex Sinaiticus [S] This includes the entire text of the Christian Scriptures and two other apocryphal books probably written about 340 ce. It was discovered in a monastery in the Sinai in 1844.
**Codex Washingtonensis I [W] This manuscript dates to about 380 ce and contains only the Gospels. It is currently located in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC and has that unusual ending of the Gospel of Mark known as the “Freer Logion.”
**Codex Bezae [D] This was written by 400 ce and only contains the Gospels and Acts. It was known to the Reformers (certainly by 1572) as the “Textus Receptus” and was the Greek original for the King James Version.
**Codex Alexandrinus [A] This dates to around 400 ce and it did — originally — contain the entire Christian Scriptures but several sections have now been lost. It was found after the King James was printed in 1611.



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