“Virgin most prudent, where are you going, glowing brightly as the dawn? Daughter of Zion, you are all beautiful and fair, serene as the moon, bright as the sun.”
Antiphon from First Vespers of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The contrast was extreme:. Several days earlier we had braved Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, a canyon of blinking neon, and the ditty-dum ditty-dum of rap music, where the visitor struggles in a flow of humanity, carts, and taxis beneath cascades of advertising. It is a message-laden world whose news kiosks are piled with hundreds of magazines glorifying wealth, health and physical beauty. The excitement of the metropolis attracts, but it also shrinks us.
It was therefore with some relief we found ourselves attending Mass in the modest Church of St. Mary’s in the upstate hamlet of Indian Lake on the occasion of the Feast of the Assumption. The Adirondacks comprise more than 6 million acres of forest wilderness stretching from the Canadian border across soft-shouldered mountain ridges in the center of which is Indian Lake, a town whose winter time population shrinks to less than a thousand near which our family had gathered for a lakeside vacation. It is a quiet land that restores one’s sense of personhood and allows one to breathe in the day.
The congregation for the Friday morning service was a multi-generational mix: white haired retirees and large family units mostly in what our style-conscious eldest daughter described as “old L.L. Bean.” By the time the 10 AM liturgy began, the small wood paneled church was standing room only. Mass was summer fare punctuated by a few familiar Marian hymns: “Immaculate Mary,” “Gentle Woman Peaceful Dove.”
Within Catholic spirituality, there is a conviction that in the Eucharistic celebration the Church makes up whatever we may lack, and the Church that day was insistent that the event celebrated was one of extraordinary magnitude. “Behold a woman crowned with stars with the moon at her feet who triumphs,” the first reading proclaimed. It portrayed, how the woman confronted by the fiery seven-headed dragon, was born away on eagle’s wings to a desert place where God cared for her. The responsorial and alleluia verses proclaimed the virgin arrayed in gold who stands by the throne, and the rejoicing of the angels when she was taken up to heaven. The message was unequivocal: Mary, this model of grace, modesty and womanliness, who accepted the will of God, gave birth to Jesus Christ, and supported his mission on earth, embodies the fullness of redemption.
The Adirondacks are a twisty world of narrow roadways, forests paths and some 3000 miles of streams and lakes. Family names in the villages often trace back for 100 years, and the community histories tell of individual trappers, farmers, loggers and fishermen. Life here is slow and calm enough to appreciate religious belief that flowed from the Church’s inner-awareness.
The Feast of the Assumption, first celebrated in the 6th century, has a peculiar kinship to the spirit of this land. It originated in the quiet of the convents and monasteries, within the solitude of prayer and scriptural reflection. The conviction that the fullness of salvation touched Mary’s body and soul matured calmly over time like a sunrise breaking through a misty lakeside. The wisdom of centuries was summed up in the Preface of the Mass that day that described Mary’s assumption into heaven is defined “as the beginning and pattern of your Church’s perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.”
The message is nonetheless radical: Christ saves us in our concrete reality, body and spirit. Within this overriding truth, the feast foreshadows what is promised to all. As Pope Benedict XVI notes, the Assumption of Mary “shows that there is even room in God for the body.”
At the end of the Mass, the faithful walked back into the day, comfortably pausing on the sidewalk to talk with the priest and one another. As we threaded our way through the crowd, an occasional car drove by bearing a canoe on the roof and coolers full of beer and sandwiches, whose occupants surely wondered why so many people were attending Church on an August Friday morning. The Mass was over and we were going in peace: an appropriate end to a celebration befitting both this quiet land with its great sky and forests, and Mary, the gentle mother of God and the first exemplar of the Church.