The greatest show on earth has just concluded in Tokyo even though it could not have the crowds we normally associate with the Olympics. Nonetheless, the Olympics came for us at an opportune time, and in this time of isolation they brought us together and they gave us some relief from the constrictions of the current lockdown. We watched many extraordinary stories of human achievement. There were stories of amazing success and bitter failures – stories to inspire us as we marvel at what the human body can achieve. The strength, flexibility and skill of the athletes left us in awe as will the stories of lifetimes of dedication, commitment and discipline reaching crowning moments. The Olympics is a great testament to the possibilities of human endeavour and we have been delighted at new personal bests and new world records and we have felt very proud of our own athletes who achieved them.
As wonderful as the Olympic stories are, they are not the only stories in our life – and certainly not the most important ones. Each Sunday ordinarily we gather to listen to another story. And on this particular Sunday, we reflect on the story of the Assumption of Mary the Mother of Jesus – the story that when her life was complete Mary’s body was wholly assumed into a new living reality without decay.
Basically, the teaching about the Assumption of Mary into heaven affirms that Jesus’ victory of life over death manifests itself immediately in Mary’s experience. She is the first to participate in the mystery of the resurrection, given to us in Jesus, in which not only our spirits but also our very bodies are transfigured into a new reality. The deepest hope by which we live has already been fulfilled in Mary. We see in her what is being promised to each of us.
This is a great mystery in itself. However, given the coincidence of this year’s celebration of the Assumption with the conclusion of the Olympics, I wonder what more this mystery might have to say to us.
As I say, the Olympics are a time in which extraordinary stories of human achievement are celebrated. Over the last few weeks we have marvelled at what individuals and national teams can achieve in strength, flexibility and endurance. But the story that presents itself to om the story of Mary’s Assumption, is a very different one from those we have heard from Tokyo. For the story of Mary is really the story of someone who achieved nothing. Mary was in truth an illiterate Palestinian peasant girl trapped in the cycle of poverty and oppression, a one time unmarried mother most probably around the age of 14 and for all time the mother of an executed criminal. There are no medals in this. To the outward observer, she achieved nothing in her life. She achieved nothing. She was the first to say so. And yet, in her, God achieved everything.
The Assumption of Mary is not a story of what Mary, herself, achieved but it is the story of what God achieves in a life that is lived in constant openness to God’s promise.
At the time of the Olympics, the celebration of Mary’s Assumption invites us to remember that in the end it’s not what we achieve that is most important in life but what God wants to, and can, achieve in our life if we have but the openness.
We know that Mary was somehow influenced by the school of 1st century Jewish spirituality known as the school of the anawim. These were the people who in the midst of their oppression, in the midst of their uncertainty, anguish and suffering kept putting their trust and hope in a God whom they perceived as being with them in their suffering, always reminding them of the promise that had been made to them – that one day they would live in freedom and peace. The anawim were the poor of Israel who, even in the darkest moments of their experience, held to the promise they had been given by their understanding of God.
Mary lived this radical spirituality in all its fullness. With nothing of her own to boast, with nothing to win a medal for – but, indeed, on the contrary with much to be socially ashamed about – she unfailingly kept her gaze on the God who promised life. And keeping her gaze there, she lived with total receptivity before this God without placing any obstacle. Thus, God worked in her the achievement he wants to work in each of us – the glory of a life fully lived, totally alive, forever.
Mary teaches us that no amount of human endeavour can ever achieve what we most deeply want. Only God can achieve this. Indeed, we don’t have to achieve anything. This is a bit confronting for us when we are so used to achieving or being expected to achieve – or when we witness others achieving a lot. But if we think about this, our lives might be a lot more free. For one thing, gone is the desperation that needs performance enhancements, whatever the cost. And these don’t just come in banned substances.
No, the true lesson of Mary’s Assumption is that, in the end, all we have to do is to allow God to achieve his dream in us – the dream God has for each and every one of us irrespective of our talents and skills. And our real value comes not in what we have achieved – physically, intellectually, socially, economically, even morally. Our value comes in the knowledge of what someone else is wanting to – and can – achieve in us.
We have enjoyed the spectacle of the Olympic; we have enjoyed all the wonderful stories. But as those who celebrate Mary’s Assumption, let us silently remember how the greatest achievement in human life comes about: not by us, but by God; not by what we have accomplished but by what God wants to accomplish in us; not by effort but by receptivity.
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