Thursday, 30 August 2012

Reflections on Willesden

Our Assumptiontide celebrations at St Matthias were fabulous.

Readers of this blog will already have seen a picture from after our Solemn Mass on the evening of 15th August. This was followed by a party in the vicarage garden. I was responsible for taking the remains of this to the bottle bank the following morning, and can testify on that basis to the fulsomeness of the celebration!

All this jollity aside, our observance actually started a few days earlier with a walking pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden.

A group of pilgrims set out by foot from St Matthias, crossed over the Edgware Road, walked round the Welsh Harp reservoir, through a nature reserve, and down through the streets of urban Neasden (including the North Circular Road) to St Mary's Church, where we had Mass and lunch.

At the time I was struck by one feature of my experience. Our pilgrimage led us from the quiet beauty of the nature reserve, lush and green in the height of mid-August, into the grimy bustle of a congested London high road. Precisely in order to make our pilgrimage, our holy journey, we had to leave peace, quiet, and nature - those things popularly associated with religious sensibility - and step out into the noisy concrete chaos of a 21st century city.

And there you have, in a metaphorical nutshell, a central claim of Christianity. God's Kingdom is not to be found in escaping from the realities of life. Rather, it is in the here-and-now - the world in which millions of people live and work, laugh and cry - that the Kingdom is growing. Here God is at work transfiguring the ordinary things of life. Here he is at work in us, wherever justice is done, wherever love is lived out. Religion, proper religion, does not involve escape from the world into some inner realm of peace. It involves transformation of the world, in all its dirty, confused, reality.

It was, of course, no bad thing to be reminded of this on a pilgrimage focused on Our Lady. She, as the guarantor of the Incarnation, is intimately associated in Christian thought with our belief that we are saved through the material world, rather than saved from the material world. In her Magnificat we hear echoed God's concern for the world we inhabit. In her Assumption we have a foretaste of that world as transformed.

That, then, is what I took away from Willesden. I'll end with some words from Fr Ken Leech:

The Assumption rejects the dualism of body and soul which still affects the Christian world: it is the whole person which is raised, just as it is the whole material creation which is to be transformed and share the freedom of the children of God (Rom.8).

Mary is thus the forerunner of the cosmic assumption of which Paul writes; she is the microcosm of the new and glorified creation. The dogma is part an assertion of the materialistic base of the Christian hope.

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