When Life Catches Up with the Words

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Feast of Assumption —  August 16, 2020

Today I am more interested in what Mary did than what she said.  It’s the reason I selected the Gospel from the Vigil Mass of Assumption rather than the Gospel from the Mass of the Feast itself.  That’s the one from Luke’s Gospel that contains Mary’s Magnificat, (“My soul gives glory to God, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…..) Don’t get me wrong, I think the Magnificat is a mighty call to justice and a challenge to generally make things right.  Her conversation with Angel Gabriel is a touching testament to the young girl’s complete openness to God’s action in her life.

These words have stirred Christians to prayer and action for 2 millennia.  I’m just not certain they are her actual words given that plenty of people with their own interests in mind have tampered with the Canon over those same millennia.

What is more convincing to me than the words is the valuing by Jesus’ first followers of how she lived her life.  Her witness by doing – so long as one accepts that Mary is an actual historical figure – is as a person who gave birth to the movement that Jesus started and who lived her life according to Jesus’ Way of Love.

Presumably, Mary grew up immersed in the faith and the tradition of her parents and her ancestors.  She, like them, lived the heritage of a people who believed they were chosen but who also believed that they were rightly punished — all by the same God.  This is the God, so the people believed, who made certain that the Israelites would successfully slaughter and remove the people who were in their way to the capture of the Promised Land.  Mary, as all her co-religionists, was brought up to fear the God of wrath.  Punishment was the path to restoration.  Only an imposed exile made the glory of a restored Jerusalem possible.

Then Jesus grows up to speak words about a God who loves always and who is always ready to forgive.  I imagine this was a moment for Mary, upon hearing her Son, when her life caught up to her words.  Her life of response brought her to challenge the old words and to accept new words.

You might say, “What else is a mother to do?  Of course, she will accept what her son teaches.  When life catches up to the words, no problem, you change your life to adapt to this New Way.  After all, her child is the Teacher.”

Let me beg to differ.  Remember back when there were a lot of priests in the US – more than these days by far?  You know, back when there were 75,000 priests not counting he foreign missionaries?  And remember when a lot – I mean a whole lot of us transitioned out of the active ministry and the employ of the RC Church?  Our lives caught up to our words and life won.

Jean and I were blessed to have families who accepted our new life changes when we married.  This is not to say the transition wasn’t difficult.  There were times when we refused to answer the phone because we couldn’t take one more distraught piece of “advice” that came our way.  But we survived.  In light of today’s feast let me say both our Mothers arrived at a place of love for and comfort with us – in our changed life together.

But I’m here to tell you that this was not the case for all of us who transitioned.  Not all mothers came along on the transition path.  I had priest friends whose Mothers shunned them for the rest of their lives – women who could not let go of the words, the rules, the dictates that formed their lives.  They were unable to allow life to catch up with the words – and to change the words for the sake of life.

So, I do not believe, even with Mary being Mary, that one should assume it was an automatic thing for her to change her life to the new words her Son was speaking.  Every day, apparently, being associated with Jesus was about “change your life and live according to the Good News.”

This is why I find insight in today’s Gospel (Luke 11:27-28).  In the face of someone wanting to put his mother up on a pedestal Jesus points out that hearing the Word is only the beginning.  One must change one’s life by obeying this New Word – this turn from revenge and violence to reconciliation and love.  Mary’s turn.

One can easily see, I hope, that this personal choice of accepting that life catches up to one’s words and calls for change – either of one’s life or of one’s words – has universal implications as well.  In the passage from the Letter to the Romans (11:13-15,29-32) today what else is being presented to those citizens of the capital of the empire than that the Good News is a universal message.  The lament that we see here about the Jews refusing this message turns into a joyful song that mercy is shown to all who rejoice in this message and change their lives.

Yes, sometimes life catches up to one’s words – and the response that is called for is action for love.  A person who faced this call to action was Anne Dufourmantelle who on July 21, 2017 drowned while attempting to save two children who were struggling in a threatening Mediterranean Sea.  The children were swimming that day when the weather, as it will in shoreline areas, changed for the worse very suddenly.  Waves heightened and the surf roiled.  In her attempt to save the children, who survived, Anne herself was lost.

Here before us is the lesson that sometimes, at a critical juncture, life catches up with one’s words.  You see Anne was a vibrant, vital participant in the world of French thought and culture.  She was a philosopher and psychoanalyst – a well-loved, insightful teacher and therapist.  Anne was the mother of Clara who was with her on that tragic day in July.  Apparently in her attempt to save the children she got caught herself in the undercurrents and could not free herself.  Her loss has been felt to this day both personally to family and friends and professionally to the intellectual community of France.  Anne was a columnist for the newspaper Liberation, established by Jean-Pau Sartre and others in the wake of the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s.  Dufourmantelle’s contributions focused on her specialties, philosophy and psychoanalysis as they related to contemporary thought and events.

I return to my theme by telling you that several years before her death Anne published her book, “In Praise of Risk.”  Her point in writing was to confront the backward slide in modern culture from bold exercises on behalf of making life better for all.  How easy it has become to withdraw, play safe, build one’s career.  Her call is to act, to reach, to see life as always calling to extend oneself beyond what we already know  — beyond the same-old, same-old words of the tried and true.

On that Summer July day in 2017 Anne’s life caught up with her words.  She responded by risking and losing her life.  In this she sealed the truth of her own words.  Children’s’ lives are worth saving.  Overcoming is worth the effort.  Anne Dufourmantelle will be long remembered for responding to life.

Anne, the Mother of Clara, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, experienced their lives catching up to their words.  Anne’s words confirmed her life and Mary’s words required change to fit her New Life.  While I never knew Anne my guess is that no pedestal was on her bucket list as neither, one assumes, was one on Mary’s.  To celebrate Assumption is not about pedestals.  As far as I can see it’s not about “body in a cloud” either.

Let’s celebrate Assumption thankful for and challenged by two women – 2,000 years apart from each other – who both realized that life catches up with one’s words.  Let’s hope you and I are ready to respond.

A Prayer     (JR)

 Mary upended her life when she said, “Yes.”  She spoke words of faith which her Son would turn upside down.  The old God of revenge and war has given way to Jesus’ message of God who loves without limits and always forgives.

As Mary’s life was a constant response to the call to love, so may our lives respond to the challenge to love that Jesus sends our way.  We pray for the resolve to clear the way forward with your uplifting love.  Amen.

Acknowledgment of Country

We began this Service with this Acknowledgment of Country which we received from our sister community in Australia (Melbourne), Inclusive Catholics.  One thing we all share in is that we live on taken land from the First Peoples. The adaptation here is to pay tribute to the First Peoples of this region in which we live.

We respectfully acknowledge the first inhabitants of this land where we live.  They include the tribes and nations of Ojibwe, Potawatami, Ho Chunk, Sac and Fox.  We give thanks, we honor them for custodianship of Mother Earth and trust in the providence of Great Spirit – all is sacred.  We pay tribute to the unique role they play in the life of this region.

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