The usual date for the church festival we are celebrating today is August 15th, but we have chosen to move it to the nearest Sunday. It is the remembrance of the day on which Mary, the mother of Jesus, was received into heaven. It is sometimes known as Mary’s Heavenly Birthday. However, the festival has several different names according to which church is doing the celebrating. This is because there are different beliefs about what happened when Mary reached the end of her life. Those churches who believe that Mary simply died like any other human may choose to call it Mary, Mother of Our Lord.
Others who believe that Mary died like any other human and that her soul was received into heaven when she died, but that, on the third day her physical body was taken up into heaven, may choose to call the festival the Dormition of the Theotokos, which means “The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God.” This is the way most Orthodox Churches celebrate Mary.
There is another way of understanding Mary’s Heavenly Birthday. On November 1, 1950, by Pope Pius XII solemnly declared:
“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
Some Roman Catholics believe that Mary did not die a human death, but was carried bodily up into heaven by angels, but many affirm that Mary did die and was then carried, body and soul into heaven. Pope Pius was wise enough not to go into details.
However, Pope Pius XII included in his statement the four infallible Roman Catholic Church teaching about Mary. These are teaching which Roman Catholics are required to believe. Anglicans do not have to believe these teachings, but many find them holy, helpful and Godly.
Pope Pius XIII referred to Mary as “Immaculate”, which is the belief that Mary was the natural daughter of Joachim and Anna, conceived and born in the usual way, but born without any desire or tendency to anything but follow God’s will. This does not mean that she wasn’t a naughty little girl sometimes, but it does mean that she knew exactly what it means to do God’s will. I always struggle to understand God’s will, but Mary didn’t. Pope Pius would say that I was born with Original Sin and Mary wasn’t.
Pope Pius XII called Mary, the Mother of God. This understanding of Mary was reached at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. I have no problem with this understanding. I truly believe that Mary was the human mother of our Lord Jesus Christ who is true God of true God, begotten, not made, as it says in the Nicene Creed. Some people say that Jesus was adopted by God at his Baptism n the River Jordan, but I believe what John teaches in his Gospel that Jesus was God, or God was in Christ from the moment of his conception.
The third infallible doctrine is that Mary was a virgin and remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus. This is the oldest of the four doctrines and has been around since the fourth century. The oldest statement was written in the second century where it claims that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were from a previous marriage of Joseph. I think, and it is my opinion, that this was written because the writer was horrified that the virginity and purity of Mary could be stained by her having sex and bearing more children. I support the words of St Mark where the crowd is reported to have said, “Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" There is no evidence or reason that Mary and Joseph had no more children after Jesus. And according to the gospel according to Matthew, they certainly had sexual relations after Jesus was born.
The fourth church teaching about Mary is that she was taken up into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life. This is where my sermon began. We are commemorating the end of the earthly life of Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the end, each and every Christian must make up their own mind about Mary. There is only one thing which we need to proclaim. Mary was the Mother of Jesus. Every human being must have a mother, and God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus so that Jesus would be truly human. God came into the world in Jesus Christ, a baby, born in the same way that we are. Today we honour Mary because she had the courage and faith to say “Let it be to me according to your will.” to God. When she said “yes” did she have any idea of what was going to come of the birth of her child? My guess is that Mary is like us, when we try to say “yes” to God. When we say, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” We are asking God to inspire us. When we say “Send us out in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” We are taking courage from Mary’s example. God may not be inspiring us to bear a child for him, instead God is asking us to do everything that we do for him, from the lightest word of kindness to the greatest work of divine love and charity. We don’t have to be immaculate or ever-virgin or the mother of God. We don’t have to be taken body and soul into heaven at the end of our lives. All we need to do is be ourselves, as honestly and as truly as we can, loving our God and our neighbour as ourselves. And for God, this will be enough.