My walk to vespers this evening was impeded because Whitehall was blocked. The proximate result of this was that I had a nice walk along the river bank, which is no bad thing. It turns out, though, that the reason it wasn’t possible to go down Whitehall was that there were celebrations of the 65th anniversary of VJ day. Now, I feel a general discomfort about people celebrating victories in war. But this discomfort becomes considerably more marked in the case of a victory brought about by the two single greatest acts of mass murder human beings have ever committed. The burning alive of human bodies is something to which the proper response is repentance; and any supposed victory achieved by that means is so tarnished as to be unworthy of celebration.
Today the Church celebrates a rather different kind of victory, and a rather different view of the human body from that implicit in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. The gospel for mass during the day on the feast of the Assumption is not Luke’s account of the visitation and magnificat simply because, as the vigilant advocate of sola scriptura might imagine, there is no biblical description of Mary’s assumption. Rather, it is chosen because the words of that passage speak vividly of what we are celebrating. Mary’s assumption is precisely the exaltation of the lowly and meek, and so the putting down of the powerful and mighty, in fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham. In the taking up into glory of a peasant woman whose conception of a child was source of scandal, and who is portrayed by Matthew as a refugee – not one who would be loved by the Daily Mail, our Lady – we see the victory of the anawim, the poor of the Lord (or, ‘the scum of the earth’ as Eagleton translates the word in his recent book on religion).; God victorious in and through the poor of the Lord. The doctrinal content of today’s feast is that this victory is ultimate. Mary is not assumed as a one-off, as some kind of divinely orchestrated side-show to bring her life to a nice close. The sharing in Christ’s resurrection which we see first in Mary, the lifting high of the humble, and the fulfilment of God’s promises, is an enduring reality. It is the most enduring human reality. This victory will last when nations and empires have disappeared from the face of the earth, and when the guns have fallen silent. History, through divine grace, is on the side of the woman from Nazareth, not of the men with flags.
Mary’s victory is, of course, bodily because Mary is a human being, and to be human is to be a certain kind of animal, and so to have a body. This is a salutary reminder to be wary of the ubiquitous temptation, which has religious and secular variants, to downplay our embodiment. We are not angelic beings temporarily trapped in a fleshy prison. This prison, so to speak, is me (and, as St Thomas reminds us, ‘my soul is not me’). Our eternal destiny is a bodily one. The human body was not created for death. It is loved by God and belongs to his redemptive plan. That is both a source of hope, and motivation to resist those forces that burn and maim, starve and oppress, human bodies.