There is a rich tradition of making assumptions about Mary, her Assumption being one. Today I am going to make some assumption with her.
In the world of art there have been many pictures painted of the Virgin Mary, indeed she continues to be a favorite subject even with contemporary painters. There are even plenty of pictures of her as the women mentioned in the book of Revelation, so my choice of picture for this day – the day which used to be referred to as the Feast of the Assumption – may surprise.
Woman Before the Rising Sun by Caspar David Friedrich
Friedrich is probably best known for his Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog and like that work he again invites us to not merely to observe the subject but to also observe what is drawing their attention, were their focus and attention lies. This picture also know as Woman Before the Rising Sun (Woman Before the Setting Sun), for there has been much debate over whether the sun is rising or setting and its longer title is the one by which it is most often referred by today. I think this highlights a reason why Friedrich is one of my favourite artists, as Werner Hofmann writes in his book about the painter:
‘Given that we continually find the same kind of uncertainty as a distinguishing characteristic in Friedrich’s paintings, the sun’s ambivalence was probably intended. Concealment goes hand in hand with the desire to mystify.’
For me, that uncertainty allows the picture to inspire in many ways, it makes me want to delve in and search that concealed mystery and despite there being none of the symbolic keys which would usually suggest the Virgin Mary, for this picture I find myself led to Mary – and it is all to do with those arms.
We, the on looker, join Mary’s story as she is going about her day only to be suddenly interrupted by a visitor with a message from God. One of those every day occurrences like the sun rising. Oh I can hear you shout, ‘but visits from God are not every day occurrences’. Well I beg to differ. I am convinced God visits us regularly, daily even, we just don’t always to notice, but I digress.
On this particular day Mary did notice this visit from God, I suppose one could say she could hardly miss it as it came via the angel Gabriel. Mary wasn’t on holiday taking time out to wait for God to send a message, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have much else to do, there would have been plenty of people around keeping her busy. She lived in a world without piped water, with fires to be tended and animals to care for, oil lamps to be filled, bread to be baked, never mind the cooking and cleaning. This was a society, that while it held a higher regard for women than most of the time, in which most of the daily chores fell upon the females regardless of their age. And if Mary was, as some traditions place her, at the Temple busy sewing serving God along with other virgins, she would still have been kept busy. Even if she was at prayer when Gabriel appeared – as some painters like to depict – she most probably held to the tradition that God only spoke to priests, and only then within the holy of holies. No, Mary wasn’t waiting expectantly, ensuring she was paying attention at precisely the correct time so as not to miss the message. Mary was going about her mundane daily life, when as Luke tells us, Gabriel appeared. First she was frightened, but come on who wouldn’t be, then perplexed by the greeting, before confusion took over after she heard the message. She questions how such a thing can happen. The Holy Spirit, comes the reply. Then, as Doris Day would sing qué será será, she accepts that what God wants will happen and says, yes.
Standing before the glory of God hands and heart open she sees and accepts the dawning of this new epoch. She opened herself to God’s working despite what it might mean to her own life. The sun is rising and new light will cover the world.
Some 33 years later the suns rays are fading and her heart is pierced just as faithful Simeon said it would be. As she witnesses her son in turn being pierced and hung on a tree to die. There in the picture she stands, transfixed by the sun that is setting the two trees off to the side of no import, her arms outstretched to try and grasp the last rays of life to hold on to that precious Light that is slipping away. The picture, for me, captures that moment before the pieta when Mary will cradle her dead son in her arms. When that moment comes all will be dark, his body like the sky will no longer contain any vitality or life, no vibrate red for his blood but a dried dark reddish brown. This moment is while her arms are empty longing to be filled with her Son whom she first cradled in that unfamiliar town as his new born cry rang out among the angels song. Her son still lives, hope while fading, is not yet gone. From eyes transfixed by wonder at the dawn, her eyes now can not be torn away from the horror of the setting sun, her son’s death. Suddenly the arms that were stretched out in a welcoming yes become a pleading no. Don’t let my son die, don’t take him away. Yet there is something more a resignation that her arms will remain empty, God’s will is again working out and her life is being irrecoverably changed once more.
The story doesn’t end there however for the sun will rise again, and maybe it is to that great event you expect me now to turn. The rising sun and the rising of the Son of God from death, but no. Mary was not at the tomb that morning, and this picture does not speak to me of that day but rather of the point when Mary’s Biblical story ends, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Just as her story began with the Spirit descending, so it ends with the Holy Spirit descending once more and another epoch beginning, this time however it is different.
When her story began it was just she whom the Holy Spirit descended upon, now the Holy Spirit descends upon all people and Mary fades into the background, just as her arm in the picture fades into the mountains. Mary is no longer the sole bearer of the Son of God, now Jesus cane reside in everyone. While she once more she welcomes the Spirit with open arms knowing that only God can fill the void that her son’s second leaving has left. She also knew that despite her earlier joy when her soul proclaimed God’s greatness and her Spirit rejoiced there was still much sorrow and injustice in the world, that the words she had sung echoing Hannah’s ancient song had still not reached their fulfillment. Those brown bushes beside her speak to me of a world bereft, in need of Christ and she knows it. This time others too welcome the child she bore into their lives. This time the Holy Spirit is falling on more than her. Surely this time with so many hands and feet to do the work God’s Kingdom will be seen? Her opening arms embrace the hope her son came to bring, look at all these people who can do your work they seem to say, all these others lives that also are saying yes.
Mary holds out her arms in loving surrender and welcomes the Holy Spirit into her life once more, bringing healing and peace not just for her but for the world. That is the moment, if you wish, that paradise is opened to all once more and the world is given the tools to make the garden flourish once more.
There are several days during the Liturgical year which are given over to Mary however in recent years this one, on the 15th August, has become the main feast for Mary the Virgin in the Anglican Church and is no longer associated with the Assumption. I was ordained upon the Feast of the Annunciation so that date will always be special to me, however because it often falls in Lent, Holy or Easter Weeks, it often gets bounced about all over the place hence the more recent practice of this being the main feast day of The Virgin Mary.