So here we are at the beginning of that (short) run of Marian festivals, in a church whose dedication is to the BVM, with a large wooden crate in the choir vestry containing a non-working model of the Lady in question, and with a notoriously suspect high-church vicar freshly returned from Walsingham. Thus every Reformation-minded bone in the congregation starts to creak, and the thoughts of all right-minded Englishmen (and women) turn nostalgically to Tyburn.
Well, not quite. Admittedly, making the belief that Mary was taken up into heaven compulsory for all RC's was a bit peculiar, and probably tells us more about the Church of Rome just after the second world war than about the Gospel. We Anglicans and the Orthodox leave it much more open. But there is a fascinating point of symmetry, of balance between last weeks Transfiguration reading and this week's festival. And it starts not in the New Testament but in the Old.
Cast your minds back to the mount of Transfiguration. The two characters who appear there with Jesus are Moses and Elijah. And I've no doubt that every one of you has had it dimmed into them from Sunday School onwards that these aren't chosen at random. Moses and Elijah are the twin pillars of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses brings the Law from God into the world. And Elijah represents the prophetic word, leaping into the world's sin and uncertainty, revealing again the – sometimes uncomfortable - light of God's truth. These who prepare the path for Christ appear on the mountain, to underscore who Jesus is – the fulfilment of all they worked for. They are axles around whom the story of salvation turns.
And by strange coincidence, there are two significant OT figures who, according to Jewish belief (and in one case in clear contradiction of Scripture) are caught up into heaven at the end of their lives. They are – Moses and Elijah. Everyone's acquainted with Elijah (cue for 'chariots of fire' theme), but a similar belief crops up about Moses. Their pivotal role in God's purpose is highlighted by their fitness for glory.
That probably explains why very early in the Church's history, that other centre of turning, Mary, starts to acquire the same distinction. Moses brings the Word of God in the Law into the world, Elijah brings the Word of God into the world in the prophetic spirit: and Mary brings the Word of God into the world in the flesh of a frail human child. You can see how the pattern forms in the early Christian mind, and how what look at first glance to be hero-stories about Moses, Mary and Elijah are actually pointing to Jesus and who he really is: the Word, present in Scripture, in the voice of Prophecy and in human form in Palestine. And these three who bring God to birth are themselves brought to heavenly birth in a favoured way.
Which leaves only one question. Not the rather dull one of 'did it happen?' - though if we believe it of Elijah we can't get sniffy about the other two. No, the question it leaves is the perennial one of whether we are, in our small way, able to be the agents of change we see in Elijah, Moses and Mary.
These ten days or so have had quite a run of saints days: Dominic, who as part of the Friars' movement, helped Europe through a time of huge upheaval and crisis – tension with the Islamic world, financial crises and social unrest - Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, murdered 70 years ago last Thursday in Auschwitz for her solidarity with the Jewish people; Clare of Assisi; even our own Mary Sumner: they saw the opportunity and they acted.
There's nothing easier than sitting back and letting the world run past, either because we feel powerless against it, or because, quite simply, it's too much effort. Only when people have the courage to bring God to birth do things alter for the good. Moses. Elijah. Mary. The inference is clear. The Gospel isn't designed for the faint-hearted, the apathetic, the cold, even though we ourselves have times when we're like that. The Gospel is an explosion of life, which will change the world in its wake.
And if we think it's all too much and doesn't make a difference anyway, I leave you with this saintly story, of Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Auschwitz when he took the place of a man selected for reprisal killing.
“It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware that someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud. To say that Fr Kolbe died for one of us or for that person's salvation is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. As long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by his act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night.”
That's called bringing God to Birth. And the world is never the same again. Elijah. Moses. Mary — us?