“I came to bring fire to the earth.”
This is unlikely to be the good news from Jesus we most want to hear this morning.
And our first thoughts easily turn to our vulnerability.
One piece of news this week has been that a house-end mural in London depicting the fires of Armageddon has been ordered to be removed – it is too painful a reminder of Grenfell Tower.
And another news item is that you cannot currently buy disposable BBQs from leading supermarkets – this weather brings uncontrollable wildfires. A couple of years ago there was just such a fire up on the Pennine moors not far from here. We could see the column of black smoke from our windows. It seemed to move astonishingly quickly, and it took days to put out. Suddenly our peaceful countryside turned very frightening. We were helpless.
Ordinary unrestricted human activity, it seems, brings destructive change to the climate; we bring fire to the earth.
So we may find ourselves looking to tomorrow’s feast for comfort; the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ own mother.
This feast brings together Mary and heaven: Mary, whose obedience we can be tempted to think of as mild and reassuring; and heaven – somewhere safely and permanently removed from the fires below.
But if the message we take from the Church’s celebrations is that our faith in Christ is a sure escape from fear and from defencelessness and from responsibility, then we have gone wrong somewhere.
To the contrary: the Assumption of Mary galvanises us in the attention we pay to the significance of this life.
And those who in prayer this past week have been bringing their questions and troubles to Mary may have found guidance, consolation even – you won’t have found easy comfort.
Mary’s trustworthy motherhood asks more of her and of us.
Mary is unavoidably involved in all her Son does and accepts, however painful.
She is always in solidarity with the body of her Son, the body from her body, and especially its suffering.
As are we, baptised into the body of Christ and into the love that Mary bears This is a love which sees the image of her Son in everyone we encounter, a potential child of God.
Tomorrow, the 15th August, is also VJ day: when the divisions of war ceased following the nuclear destruction of large parts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And a further item of unwelcome news this week has been of the risk to nuclear reactors in Ukraine.
There is a writer who brings these themes together – themes of his own life – the Japanese Catholic novelist, Endo Shusaku.
He writes of Christian Japanese facing persecution and looking for the natural, unavoidable mothering of God – not the judgmental father.
See, for example, his account of the hidden Christians of Japan in the short story he entitles, ‘Mothers’. Here the narrator, an academic from Tokyo visiting a remote island, is finally shown the secret icon of the Holy Mother cradling the Christ child: “no,” he writes, “it was a picture of a farm woman holding a nursing baby. … The face was like that of every woman on the island.”
And when Endo comes to write of the holiness we aspire to, the holiness which supports us as the cloud of witnesses, the heavenly company, it often belongs to the fool and the weakling. This day, before the Assumption, is the martyrdom of St Maximilian Kolbe. St Maximilian offered his life in Auschwitz in place of a married man and father. He found a way in the darkest of places to do as Christ does. The Christ in Maximilian brought fire to the earth; a fire that divided, but a fire that also transformed, that warmed and illuminated with love, and continues to do so.
And Endo Shusaku writes also of Maximilian, of his time as a missionary friar teaching children in Japan. How does he portray this fictional Maximilian?
As ‘Mouse’, the teacher ridiculed by the children with a Harold Lloyd face.
One of his former students, unbelieving, is travelling in a train when he hears the news. Who or what could have effected such a change in Mouse?, he is forced to ask. And then thinks: somewhere in this crowd of ordinary people there will be just such a person, timorous, yet who would die for love of a friend.
Perhaps we could say the same for the other saints who have accompanied us this week: Edith Stein, Mary Sumner, Clare who became the mother of Assisi.
So, returning to Mary, first among the cloud of witnesses.
Hers is a mother’s love.
It is not ever going to be calculating.
It is not to be measured out according to her child’s worth.
Mary is in this body and soul:
pondering, meekly receptive, yes, but made ardent by love, ready to receive the sword that pierces, and hungering for a people who so honour God that they will form a society in which her undefended child will flourish, in which the children of all mothers will flourish.
As Mary is assumed into heaven, so is all this, all she has embraced of her unavoidable involvement as a mother. As Mary is assumed into heaven, the Magnificat too becomes the song of heaven, the song of the holy witnesses.
They cheer us on in song.
This is heaven not far distant from earth, but creation purified as if by fire.
And by the ordinary, extraordinary holiness of Mary and the cloud of witnesses,
and of you too,
as we are all drawn, body and soul, into the family of Jesus Christ.
As those praying this week have been.
As we are now receiving him in bread and wine.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.