There are good and important reasons why we should celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. The feast is new, organic, democratic, timely, and in these ways, shows a way forward for our Church.
The Assumption of Mary was promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950, just 73 years ago. That’s almost yesterday in “Church years”. Our Church is a living Church capable of acting in modern times. Because there is no scriptural record, the belief that she was taken up to heaven, both body and soul, had to well up in the body of our Church as an organic love story. (We love Mary because she loves us.) The belief that Jesus had the power to do for his mother validated what they believed made their belief “suitable and fitting”, a belief from the heart confirmed by Jesus’ power to lift up his mother body and soul.
The Feast of the Assumption of Mary was proclaimed by a dogmatic pronouncement by a pope exercising (for the last time up to now) his new power to make infallible pronouncements. But history says that he asked the bishops of the world what they thought (98% liked the idea) expressing also what the people believed. So even though the action looked top-down, it was really bottom-up consultation.
The twentieth century saw two world wars with death and destruction never seen before. Millions died. Auschwitz and Hiroshima happened. The papal bull recognized this historical tragedy with its denegation of the human body. Alluding to the bloody wars of the twentieth century, the document deplores the destruction of life, and the desecration of the human body (Richard P. McBrien). From the bull itself, “the exalted destiny of both our soul and body may in this striking manor be brought to the notice of all persons.”
Our Church is at its best when it recognizes belief born of love and allowed to grow organically in the body of the Church. Our Church is at its best when it acts collectively, dare I say democratically, and consults its bishops and all the people. Our Church is at its best when it reads the signs of the times and acts on what leaps out of history.
Let us celebrate Mary in heaven and a Church that can grow organically, make decisions collectively, and read the signs of the times.
John Houk, jpc
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It was late on a cool evening. Dishes had been put away and finally they had time to themselves. As they were getting ready for bed Mary spoke. “Your brother doesn’t like Judas. He thinks he steals money.”
“I asked him to join us. I can’t just ask him to leave.”
“OK, but you need to watch him. Do you have plans for tomorrow?”
“The Pharisees have invited me to dinner.”
“I would rather have you here with me.”
“It’s how I get to know people and how they get to know me.”
“Then I want to go along.”
“They don’t allow women at their table.”
“I want to go.”
“They won’t like it.”
“You need to fix that. I want to go.”
“OK, but it may not be comfortable for you.”
“I can deal with that. When was the last time you visited your mother? She is looking older and she worries about you. You need to spend more time with her.”
“She worries too much.”
“It’s a mother’s job to worry, and she has good reasons. Not everybody likes what you are doing.”
“I have to let that be their problem. By the way, don’t hog the blanket like you did last night. It’s going to be cold again.”
“I turn over and it just happens.”
“Then turn my way.”
“I’m going with you tomorrow.”
“Yes, I hear you.”
“And visit your mother.”
“Good night, Mary. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Silly to even try to imagine an evening with Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, you may be thinking. After all they weren’t real people. Ah, did we really have that thought? Take a breath. They were real people. They spent years together in a close long-lasting relationship. They had common concerns and interests. They would talk. Yes, they would. I invite you to imagine listening in on any one of the many conversations they certainly would have had. Take a breath. What might they have said on the way to the Pharisee’s dinner?
Perhaps you have to live a love story to see the power in other people’s love stories. On July 31, 2006 Joan stood in front of 425 people on a river boat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a candidate to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in intentional conflict with Church law for the purpose of changing it. She had asked me to be the person, who would witness her qualifications for priestly ministry. I began, “From early in my life our Church taught me that women were occasions of sin to be avoided. My personal experience had always been that women were occasions of grace. The Church is wrong about women.” And I went on to list Joan’s character and accomplishments. When your experience disagrees with what you are being told, what do you believe? I had, and have, no problem making that choice.
The master story we have been given leaves no space for a love story between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala. But my story fits perfectly with their story so I have no trouble accepting it. More than that, I delight in the possibility that their love story is the real story, the true story, the central story out of which Christianity emerged. My personal experience pushes back against the master story that makes their story and by implication all human love stories invisible. To bring their story out into the light we must first claim Mary Magdalene as our own.
Thankfully I am not a lone voice today in the work of reclaiming the centrality of Mary of Magdala in our Christian story. Pope Francis, in 2016, made her an apostle by giving her the official title of “Apostle to the Apostles” and by elevating July 22 to a feast day of equal importance to the Twelve. Books and movies have sprung up, and people ask the big question, “Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a sexual relationship, and did they have children?” Everyone wants to know. But for me today, right now, the bigger question is why their love story has been made invisible within our master story? Why? Perhaps another story will help us here.
The Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault tells a story of visiting a monastery with many icons, and looking for an icon of Mary of Magdala, she had not seen one so she asked a monk. He responded, “This is an all-male monastery. There are no icons of women.” She did not respond, but had already noticed a proliferation of “Blessed Virgin” icons. Shake your head, please.
There were no icons of women at that monastery. Mary Magdalene has been invisible because women are invisible. To the monk, the Blessed Virgin doesn’t count as a woman, and I agree. We need not take away from one saint to add another so there is no need to take anything away from Mary, but the “Blessed Virgin” is not a flesh and blood woman in love with a flesh and blood man. Why were, and are, women made to be invisible? Why?
I am an engineer with 18 years of school and 50 years of experience, which included some accident investigation work. Why is always the question. The proximate cause is often the easiest. Someone pulled the wrong lever. In the instant case the proximate cause is that we have a history of celibate men creating a master story for celibate men. Why? You may get tired of my engineering think, but hang with me because I need to SWAG. When there is limited data, engineers are forced to SWAG. That’s anacronym for sophisticated wild ass guess. I love women, so why don’t other men?
Eve did it, you say. I don’t think so. An ancient storyteller faced the mystery of evil and translated it into the problem of evil (not the same thing), then mansplained the problem by blaming a disobedient woman for it. The talking snake should have been a dead give-away, but, ouch, many people bought into the story because it was the only story in town. Why? Sorry, but this is the only game I know how to play.
Anthropologists like Margaret Mead strongly suggest that much of what men invent, and do, is compensatory. Faced with the nagging need to prove they are men, they take the always available (up to now) easy way out by “proving” they can do things that women can’t do. So, it’s built into men, i.e., a biological thing, that men must invent things to do that lowly women can’t do, say the anthropologists. All male priesthood? Think about it.
That doesn’t seem to answer the question, why in a hierarchy of values does virginity stand above normal sex and motherhood thus making a real live love story invisible? How about the way men ask, “Who’s your daddy?” Is this child mine? with the emphasis on what’s MINE?
A self-giving, mutual giving and receiving, a this is my body given for you love story doesn’t fit the master story we have received, in my mind, for very unsavory reasons. Men need to prove they are men by doing things that women can’t do, and men want women and children as property. That’s my SWAG. If you have better data, please speak up. Back to Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
The mystics make much of the separate reality that can come into existence, with a holy permanence, when love is given and received. I’m no mystic, but I do not deny that what they suggest may be correct, including that their way of thinking may be the key to personally experiencing the Risen Christ. But I suggest that the mystic may not have the full answer because Jesus emphatically teaches (in three gospels) that children are welcome in heaven. More than that, he teaches that unless we are like children (flourishing in loving bonded relationships) we ourselves risk not making the cut. There are few child mystics. The mystics may counter that all children are natural mystics. OK, let’s go there. Children are not, specifically and pointedly not born defective. (Sorry, St. Augustine, but I can’t go there.) God did not create a perfect world with all kinds of beautiful creatures, but mess up when humans were created. God just wouldn’t do that.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when we finally dismiss the sex = conception = child = sin equation, we will find a love story at the center of our story where two = one, but first we must reclaim Mary Magdalene starting on July 22, 2023.
Not all monasteries are created equal. This full life sculpture of Mary of Magdala is at the entrance of a monastery. Men, imagine with me what it would be like to have a woman like this love you. “It’s cold. I’ll come closer”, she said. Lucky Jesus.
Peace and all blessings,
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Luke wrote the dramatic story of the birth of the Church. Condensing the story, we have disciples in a room together after Jesus’ Ascension where they selected Matthias to replace Judas. Then on the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after Passover, they were again all together. The Holy Spirit inspired them and they began to speak in every language. A crowd gathered and was amazed, and Peter gave a speech to the crowd and many came to believe. The believers then formed a primitive community with all things held in common. Luke wrote this story in the years between 85-95 CE, and is the only writer to tell us how it happened. He wrote both from “investigation and imagination” (NRSV Notes). Luke wasn’t there so what can we really know or reasonably imagine?
Luke clearly intends to tell it like it happened, as best as he can. However, we know from Luke’s style that he uses speeches to make Luke points (NRSV Notes) so Peter’s speech is a literary creation. Peter put a guilt trip on the crowd, which is a step away from “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23-34) Maybe Luke had his reasons, but who else may have spoken up on this dramatic occasion? Luke tells us that 120 people, including women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brother were in the upper room, and that they all came back on Pentecost when they all began to speak in every language. What might the other 119 have said? Luke tells us that these people were witnesses. There were 120 witnesses who experienced Jesus, up close and personal. They were his family and his friends. How wonderful it would be if we knew what they all had to say. Let’s pretend we are Luke and use our imagination.
Jesus had called them all to be his witnesses, they all were given the power of the Holy Spirit to speak boldly – in public – to a crowd of people, all of them, each with their own personal experience of Jesus. Let’s use our imagination. An elderly widow spoke up and said, “I was sick and afraid that no one would be able to take care of me, and Jesus told me, ‘Don’t be afraid. My friends will take care of you,’ and they do. I have a new life because of Jesus.” A young person started telling their story, “They thought I had died, and I thought maybe they were right, but Jesus said, ‘Don’t be afraid. Get up and have something to eat,’ and here I am good as new.” A woman said, “I was on the street and Jesus and his friends took me in. I don’t have to sell my body any more, or be afraid someone will kill me for being sinful.” James, Jesus’ brother added, “He was my big brother. He took risks that I would have been afraid to take. He was my hero. I followed him everywhere. He taught me not to be afraid.”
Let us continue to use our imagination. Luke does not specifically mention Mary of Magdala as being among the 120, but as one of Jesus’ closest friends, we can be sure she was there. So we have Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary of Magdala, who was never a prostitute, together. What would they have said to the crowd? Close your eyes and imagine. What would they say? Luke did it, so can you. You really can imagine what Mary of Magdala and Mary would have said to the crowd. Yes, you can. Jesus told his friends over and over. “Don’t be afraid,” or the positive equivalent, “Peace be with you.” Mary and Mary of Magdala would not have been afraid to tell their stories. Women tell stories to great effect. It’s what they do. This 2023 CE Pentecost is an opportunity to imagine the stories that the two most important women in Jesus’ life told the crowd. The Holy Spirit will provide the inspiration. You may not have a crowd in the street, although it still happens, but you have the cloud. You can be the voices that Luke left out.
The Easter season makes me hope for the day when women achieve full membership in our Church because, you may ask, they would take Jesus down off the cross, every Sunday, not just once a year. Jesus died on the cross once. Then he was raised to life forever. Our Church has put him back on the cross. When women are at the table where the Church agendas are set, they will correct this long-standing mistake. Let us go to the beginning.
The early Church experienced Jesus’ crucifixion in two ways, fear and scandal. Fear that they too may be singled out and die the same death. Romans crucified anyone in their far-flung empire who they thought were a problem. There are stories told of roads being lined with crucified people, and on the day Jesus died, two others were crucified on the same hill. Crucifixion was a common event, put where people would see it, with the implied message – this could happen to you if you cross the Romans. So fear was real and justified.
You didn’t brag that you had a family member crucified any more than today you would brag that a family member was in prison or worse. The early Church didn’t talk about how Jesus died. It was not a point of pride that their leader died a criminal’s death. Writers today and even scripture accounts themselves tell us that Jesus was crucified because he was seen as a dangerous criminal threat to the prevailing order. So why have we left him on the cross? Men took over the Church’s agenda and convinced themselves that Jesus’ death by crucifixion “satisfied God’s justice” (a quote from the Baltimore Catechism). Men projected their own perceived need for justice onto an infinite God, who needed infinite justice, and giving Jesus a painful death would accomplish that. They believed. So, they put him back on the cross and have left him there. Women will take him down. So why is this so important? What would happen if we experienced the resurrected Jesus? Paul, our great evangelist tells us.
Paul didn’t know Jesus until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He tells us of the power of this experience when he asks Ananias, “What am I to do?” and then Paul, who had been attacking the Church took the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. We call this conversion.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were like Paul. They did not know Jesus until they knew him as resurrected from the dead. We know this because they answered the call to collect and write about Jesus, decades after Jesus died. There were other prophets and other people, who had been crucified by the Romans, but only one person who was raised from the dead. It was the Risen Jesus that they came to know, and then asked, “What are we called to do?” The result is our four Gospels.
We almost certainly would know nothing about Jesus (there is one short paragraph in an obscure history book) unless Paul with his letters and the Gospel writers had not come to know the resurrected Jesus and asked, what am I to do? There would be no memory of Jesus; no community of believers if they had not come to know Jesus as raised. But how do we know that women will help us find opportunities for us to meet the resurrected Jesus? Let’s go back to the beginning again. Women did not respond to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the same way as men.
Who was at the foot of the cross? Women and one man. All the other men had fled. Women overcame their fear. Women went to anoint the body. They were not ashamed that Jesus died a criminal’s death. And, they were rewarded by being the first to meet the resurrected Jesus, who told them to go tell the men. It was the women, who were first given the message of resurrection. That commission continues today.
It is my expectant hope that when women achieve full membership in the Church that they will take Jesus down off the cross. Every Sunday will be an Easter Sunday where we will meet the resurrected Jesus, then ask ourselves, “What are we called to do?”
Peace and happy Easter!
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To you who are standing faithful and strong in the ashes:
May the skies clear of fighter jets to let the warm sun kiss your face;
May the sirens and explosions cease that you may hear the chirping of the birds near and far;
May the rains take smoke, dust and ash from the air that you may see the blue sky and bright yellow flowers, the colors of your flag surrounding you in Ukraine glory;
May the waters, teeming with fish, run clear and pure to quench your thirst and refresh your body;
May the hatching of feathered friends and birth of furry critters bring hope of a future with new life;
May the attacks, the violence and the fear come to an end that you may come out of dark, cold bunkers into fresh air where elders of wisdom sit on benches, engaged in storytelling and children run and laugh and play in the sunshine;
May men and women return to their storefronts, to planting their crops, to cooking the meals and baking the bread, to bottling the wine, to healing the sick, to educating the students, to writing the books, painting and sculpting, playing in concerts and singing in chorus;
May the mothers birth their babies, cradle and nourish them for they are the future of Ukraine;
May you rise from the ashes to Resurrection, through Christ, with Christ, in Christ! May it be.
+Joan on April 16, 2022
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Christ is rising in the fertile eggs protected by Mama Goose’s wings as she sits on her carefully feathered nest.
Christ is rising in the bright yellow daffodils pushing up through the rich brown earth, reaching for the sun’s warm light.
Christ is rising in the hands of medical staff bringing healing to the very ill and injured, and comforting touch to those passing over.
Christ is rising in the scientists and lab technicians producing life-saving vaccines with the promise that we will be able to hug one another again.
Christ is rising in the hearts of compassionate people feeding the hungry, calling out injustice and welcoming the stranger.
Christ is rising in the cries of the newborns bringing hope to us all, for Christ says, these are my prophets, poets, teachers and artists, engineers, musicians and future leaders. “Do not be afraid, for see, I make all things new.”
Christ is rising in the sun lifting our spirits and energizing us. Christ is rising in the moon allowing us rest and peaceful sleep.
Christ is risen. Christ is rising. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
+Joan Clark Houk Easter, April 4, 2021
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When we lived in a multi and diverse Church environment in Eastern Kentucky, Joan discovered opportunities to bring Churches together for some common celebration. Ash Wednesday was one such opportunity. I have memories of Protestant participants getting ashes on their foreheads for the first time. One woman said to me, with enthusiasm, “This is the first time I’ve been ashed!” She had “been ashed.” For the first time. I let that sink in.
I’m old school Catholic so “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is what being ashed has always meant to me. I don’t struggle with the newer “good news” version of being ashed, but that is not where my mind is on Ash Wednesday. My mind is on dust.
Genesis comes right out and says God made us from the dust of the earth. The name, Adam, means earth creature so they say, and my dust beginning. But ending as dust, what does that mean?
Anyone who has kept house knows dust. Are we saying that our dusting cloth contains someone else’s dust? Really? Of course, we can’t say for sure, but I know dust.
In learning how to build things in Arctic Alaska I came to know that much of the ground there was composed of dust from someplace else, mostly Siberia. We are not talking a “dusting” but feet, even yards deep dust. It’s called loess to engineers who must learn to work with it and build things on it. First, if it is frozen in place, for heaven’s sake don’t thaw it out. OK, back to dust.
So dust often comes from far away. In Alaska it comes from Siberia. In the lower U.S. it comes with the prevailing wind from Asia and sometimes from Africa and the Middle East. It seems like everything is from China lately, even the dust on your table top. Dust gets around. It is statistically probable that every surface in our home contains dust from far away places. But that’s not the end of the story. There is new dust and there is old dust; some dust is so old that it was dust when we were being created.
The more I know about dust, the more I like it. Dust floats in the air. Dust is not stuck in one place. Local dust gets mixed with dust from every place else. New dust is mixed with old dust, really old dust, Biblical dust, Roman dust, OK, Chinese dust. Dust is the ultimate equalizer; the ultimate organic unifier. I like dust.
I doubt that the well-dressed Protestant woman’s mind was on the equalizing and unifying qualities of the ashes / dust on her forehead, but maybe it was. I believe she felt part of a wider Church that she may never have felt before because it showed in her enthusiasm for being ashed. Ash Wednesday can do that for a person.
Dust to dust we say, at least we used to say. We know that’s how we began, and now we know what becoming dust can mean. Yes, it means being humble, but also it means organic oneness. Dust never means isolation or being forgotten. Whose dust is on your table, or perhaps better, whose dust is at your table? And don’t forget to get ashed.