Most of us, I suppose, have heard of Apollo, the ancient Greek god of sunlight, music, and poetry. According to one legend, when Apollo's mother was pregnant, Python the dragon (foreseeing that this new god might destroy his power) pursued her, hoping to kill Apollo at his birth. But Apollo's father just happened to be Zeus, who intervened to rescue both mother and child. And Apollo, in due course, did indeed destroy the dragon.
Christianity originated in a world where such stories were well known and an important part of the common cultural heritage. The Emperor Nero, for example, even saw himself as a new Apollo. As for the early Christians, who were themselves objects of Nero's persecution, they also adapted such stories to their own situation.
To an ancient Christian audience, already well acquainted with the Jewish Bible, the identity of the woman in today's first reading [Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10] would be obvious. She is Israel, God's Chosen People, finally bringing to birth the Messiah, thanks to whom Israel has been expanded now to include all nations and peoples in a new and enlarged People of God, the Church. Christian traditon, accordingly, identifies this woman with the Church, which continues the task of bringing Christ into the world. Now that the Risen Christ has ascended to his throne in heaven, the Church remains behind, still under attack from the forces of evil in the world (as the persecuted first-century Christians would have been well aware), but ultimately full of hope.
It is easy to see how they could have come to recongize the story of the Church in the image of this woman - and equally easy to see how the Church in turn has seen the image of this woman as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who first gave birth to the Messiah and who herself has in turn traditonally been seen as an image, a symbol, of the Church. In Mary's own prayer, her hymn of praise known as the Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55], Mary united herself with the whole story of God's activity on our behalf and so serves as a model for us in identifying ourselves totally with God's plan for the world.
An important part of that plan is our hope to share fully in Christ's risen life. Christ, Sant Paul powerfully asserts in today's second reading [1 Corinthians 15:20-27], has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. In Old Testament times, the springtime offering of the firstfruits signified the dedication of the entire harvest to God. So the resurrection of Christ (which took place on the day of the offering of the firstfruits) points ahead to the final resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. In Mary's assumption, we have been given a vision of what God, having already accomplished in Christ, plans yet to accomplish in us.
Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church, as we are now, with the Church, as we hope to be then, when Christ has destroyed every sovereignty and every other authority and power. And the last enemy to be destroyed in death.
Conscious as we all are of our own death to come, death often seems like the ultimate atttack on all our hopes. Our world is full of natural disasters, inexplicable personal tragedies, and deliberate destruction. Violence and sickness seem to surround us. So powerful does the dragon of death appear, that it dared to attack even Jesus. Only after death had done its worst did God decisively step in, conquering death by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.
In a well known, familiar hymn, Mary is addressed in these words:
O higher than the cherubim, More glorious than the seraphim, Lead their praises, Alleluia. Thou bearer of the eternal Word Most gracious magnify the Lord, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there. For where she is, there we hope to be.
Blessed be her glorious Assumption!
Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2010.