August 15th is not only the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is also India Independence Day, the day that India gained her independence from England in 1947, 60 years ago. I am reminded of that because my arrival for my first visit to Shantivanam occurred just days before India Independence Day and I got to witness first hand the festivities, the colorful chalk drawings on the ground around the ashram, the raising of the Indian flag accompanied by the singing of the national anthem, and the children breaking a pinyata-like object filled with sweets. I also will never be able to forget the connection because of a startling something I read while visiting the New Delhi branch of Auroville on my last trip, the ashram founded on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. I was sitting in the meditation room in mid-afternoon, killing some hours before I caught my flight out that evening and leafing through some pamphlets I had picked up n the bookstore. One of them was the story of Sri Aurobindo’s life. He had been a kind of Indian freedom fighter in the early days. He first turned his prodigious intellect toward a short political career and became one of the leaders of the early movement for the freedom of India from British rule, mainly through journalism and other writing. But then he “turned to the development and practice of a new spiritual path which he called the “integral yoga,” the aim of which was to further the evolution of life on earth by establishing a high level of spiritual consciousness which he called the Supermind that would represent a divine life free from physical death.” As it turns out, his birthday was also August 15th, and when India finally won her independence, someone wrote to him remarking that wasn’t it wonderful that India should have won her independence on his birthday? He replied that it had an even greater and deeper significance that India would have won her independence on the feast of the Assumption, a feast which "implies that the physical nature is raised to the divine Nature"–– and that of course was the point of his integral yoga. He thought that physical consciousness and physical being, the body itself could “reach a perfection in all that it is and does which now we can hardly conceive. It may even in the end be suffused with a light and beauty and bliss from the Beyond and the life divine assume a body divine.” I think that he perhaps understood the promise of the Gospel even more than most Christians.
I think we have to turn back to some events in Jesus’ life first to realize the significance of this story, mainly to the story of Jesus' ascension. There was another shocking thing I read some years ago about Jesus’ ascension from the French liturgist Jean Corbon: “There is but a single Passover or Passage but its mighty energy is displayed in a continual ascension and Pentecost.” A continual ascension!? What does this mean? Not only is Jesus at the Father's right side. We are, Christ’s body. Jesus is the head of this body, and his fullness is in us, the rest of the Body. I have a quite literal image in my mind of this. The head of the body is there, but for all of history that head, Jesus, will be dragging, sometimes kicking and screaming, the rest of the body behind him, to follow him, to be with him, at the right hand of the throne of God in glory. Us, his body! We are the work of this continual ascension. We are meant to ascend, we are "being ascended"! Because our high priest Jesus is there, drawing us to himself. I have also the image of the tides and the moon: the same water (that is, the Spirit) who raised Jesus from the dead is in us, and like the moon draws the waters to itself, even more so we are being drawn to Jesus, drawn to God, drawn to glory, even in our very flesh. Jesus' public ministry is done, but his work continues, from the right hand of the Father, the work of drawing us to himself. Did not Jesus say in his final discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 14:3) I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also?
And Mary stands for Christians as the first fruit of that promise.
I read something about Muhammad recently in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion that made me think of Mary. It said, concerning Muhammad, “There was always a thin line between emulation and veneration, between making him an ideal exemplar and dehumanizing him into a perfect man. One could imitate him, but not completely, because he was too special; but one could not make him so special that he was not human.” In dealing with any religious figure, and especially with Mary, there is always this thin line between emulation and veneration; there is always a thin line between making of Mary an ideal exemplar and dehumanizing her into a goddess, making her so special that she is no longer human. The danger of the latter is that we can imitate, but not completely, because she’s too special; and we project all of the promise on to her and forget that we, humanity, are the subject of the story.
Under the pontificate of John Paul II we almost had "the Fifth Marian Dogma," a dogmatic recognition of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Mary had already been designated by the Church with four other holy attributes––as Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431, as ever Virgin in 649, as immaculately conceived by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and as being assumed into heaven body and soul by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The proposed dogma of co-redemptrix would have held that by her unique co-operation with God as the Woman, New Eve, Mother of the living, and having been assumed into heaven, Mary continues this saving office as Advocate and Mediatrix of all grace by her constant intercession to obtain for the gifts of salvation for all people. Even though Mary’s role would still have been subordinate to and always dependent upon the essential and chief role of Jesus, one of the reasons this was controversial is because it paints a very thin line between her and Jesus––it deifies her. I was of two minds about it. On the negative side, I do not want anyone else between me and God. I never like the saying, “To Jesus, through Mary,” for instance. On the other hand, one of the reasons I liked the idea of Mary being raised up even more was specifically because of this thin line. Mary has been the only feminine face of the Divine for Christians for centuries. (And it has often been the common people––the sensus fidelium––not the scholars––the sensus fidei–– who have clamored for her being exalted). But Mary is also not only the feminine. By virtue of being the feminine she is also the connection with the earth that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. She is also humanity; she is one of us, the first fruits of the promise. I love the idea of Mary, and so humanity, the feminine, the earth being deified, a concept that the eastern Christian tradition speaks of much more than the western.
I love the Rublev icon of Abraham’s three visitors under the oaks of Mamre, and I have used it as a sort of emblem for all my work. The thing I especially love is that in the image there is a place at the table for us to enter––why it is so wonderful at the entrance to the chapel at our monastery––to enter right into the life of the Trinity. On the other side of the chapel, right in front of the Marian icon, there is an echo of that configuration in a design in the granite stone that was laid down some years ago. There is a triangle there, representing the Trinity, and a smaller triangle in front of it opening toward it. That’s Mary breaking into the Trinity, but that is also us and behind us all of the earth that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodes, being led by Mary where she went, where Jesus is, into the Life Divine.
I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Some last words from Sri Aurbindo:
In the past the body has been regarded by spiritual seekers rather as an obstacle.
In the past the body has been regarded as something to be overcome and discarded rather than as an instrument of spiritual perfection and a field of the spiritual change.
But if a divine life is possible on earth, then this perfection of the body must also be possible.