On Apoc 11:19-12:10.
Who is she? Who is this woman? What is this great sign in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, with a crown of twelve stars on her head (Apoc 12:1)? She is beautiful, and she is also terrible. In the words of the Song of Songs: Who is she, arising like the dawn, fair as the moon, resplendent as the sun, terrible as an army in battle array (6:10)?
Here as elsewhere, the language with which St. John describes his vision is obscure, allusive; clearly symbolic, but resisting easy interpretation. In attempting to portray what can scarcely be portrayed, John draws freely on a wide variety of images from the Jewish scriptures and also from pagan mythology. So the woman of his vision evokes a new Eve, a new Jerusalem, a new Israel, a new People of God. She evokes the Church. She evokes Mary assumed into heaven. She can’t simply be Mary, because at several points the description doesn’t fit. But of all the images and models he evokes, surely Mary’s Assumption must have been the one uppermost in John’s mind as he wrote. He doesn’t set out here to teach directly the doctrine of the Assumption, but it’s surely there for him in the background. Therefore we can legitimately draw on this description when we consider the glory of Mary.
I, John saw… The sanctuary of God in heaven opened, and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen inside it (11:19).
According to the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant symbolised the dwelling of God amongst his people. It contained the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. Over it was set a Mercy Seat of pure gold, which the High Priest once a year sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice, and surrounded with burning incense. Above it were stretched the protecting wings of the Cherubim. The ark was hidden within the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary, seen by nobody except the High Priest on the single Day of Expiation.
All of this was a symbol of the things to come. Now the veil hiding the true ark of the Covenant has been taken away, so that all now have free access to the most holy place where God dwells. God’s dwelling among us became definitive at the Incarnation. And the Ark which bore him was Mary. She who carried the Lord in her womb for the sake of his holy people, and for the whole world, still bears him, still mediates him, in heaven. Eternally within her too is the new Law of God, who is the Holy Spirit.
What of the mercy seat set above the ark? Surely this represents the Divine Mercy, poured out as a result of Christ’s sacrificial death. Mary is sprinkled with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, for she is the one who is most perfectly, most fully redeemed. And Mary now bears everlasting witness to the Divine Mercy. She is inseparably associated with it. She both receives it and mediates it. And so we offer her incense, which represents the prayers and devotion and love of the Church, and we invoke her as Mother of Mercy; our Mother. We do not do so alone: the Cherubim and all the heavenly host join us in surrounding her with honour, rejoicing in her, singing her praises.
The moon of John’s vision is placed under Mary’s feet, for now she is beyond all changeability. Nothing now can in any way diminish her or harm her. She is clothed with the sun, more beautiful, more glorious than any earthly Queen arrayed in garments of gold (Ps 44:10). Yet surely her beauty is not so brilliant as to hurt our eyes. On the contrary, she draws us to herself, fascinates us, invites us to come close, in a relationship of profound intimacy.
On her head is a crown of twelve stars. For St. John, so much given to number symbolism, these stars must evoke both the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve Apostles of the Church. Recently on the plane back from Brazil, Pope Francis remarked about Our Lady: she is more important than the Apostles! She is more important than the Bishops, or the Pope himself! With the Angels, the Apostles surround her, serve her, and give her glory, for she is Christ’s beloved Bride; she is the Temple of God; in herself she is the Church.
In St. John’s vision, a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns attacks the woman. And nowadays we feel the dragon has if anything increased the ferocity of his attacks. In so many parts of the world Christians are persecuted, driven from their homes, killed, deprived of basic human rights. In our own country this attack upon the Church assumes a most bitter form, when it’s not so much directed against Christians because of their fidelity, but arises, as if by itself, as a result of their shocking infidelities. Today the Church might seem not so much shining in heavenly glory, as prostrate on the ground in shame, her sins and failures exposed to the disgusted gaze of all. Thank God, then, for today’s wonderful feast, whose central importance for us all is signalled by its being still designated a holy day of obligation. Today we raise our eyes to Mary, in whom we see an image, a reminder, a model of the authentic holiness of the Church. Mary assumed into heaven is where we want to be, where we hope to be, where we are called to be. In Mary we see perfect union with Jesus Christ; in her we see the depths of interior prayer and loving adoration of the Holy Trinity; in her we see perfect purity of heart and of action.
In Mary also we see a motherly compassion that embraces every single person, however bad, shallow, impure, compromised, wretched they may be. Mary does not stand in heaven as if aloof, separated off, out of reach. On the contrary, from her position of inviolable security she ever watches over us her children: loves us, helps us, guides us. What madness it would be in us, then, to neglect her, to behave as if she did not exist, to fail to turn to her in our needs! No: today especially we protest and renew our love for her, our devotion to her, and we deliberately entrust our whole life, and the life of the whole Church, into her care. Hail Mary! we cry. Salve Regina! Victory and power and empire is yours (Apoc 12 10). Pray for us, then, poor sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.