[For my final paper in my Art & Religion class last semester, I had to write a sermon about a painting that we discussed in class. I chose El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin. This is the first sermon I've written for seminary so far. In all honesty I feel like it's a bit rushed and wish I'd spent a little more time tying things together at the end, but I think it's a good first sermon. This also gets an award for being both the most unabashedly Catholic and unabashedly heretical thing I've ever written. So that's a plus.]
When I pray the Rosary, I usually avoid are the Glorious Mysteries. Unlike the Luminous Mysteries (which are full of great social teachings) or the Joyful Mysteries (which are really cute) the Glorious Mysteries are just weird. They feel outdated and uncomfortable, full of stuffy non-canonical stories about Mary’s Assumption and Coronation that seem hard to relate to my own life, and even harder to believe.
But looking at El Greco’s painting of the Assumption, I see a very different vision of these aspects of Mary. She is a Queen, but not the stuffy English kind that sits on a throne, apart from her people. She is the Queen of all creation, riding a moon and shining like the sun. She brings to mind the book of Revelations: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” In this painting, she looks like a goddess, preparing to give birth to the Messiah and to all of creation. She is a light-giver and a life-bearer. She is in pain, but she is not defeated.
Unlike El Greco’s earlier painting of The Dormition of The Virgin, in this image she isn’t a sick, frail woman waiting for her son to come down from the clouds and save her from death. She isn’t even being carried by angels, unlike his painting of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Instead, angels and the apostles are gathering in wondrous praise of her.
This defiant, powerful woman challenges us. This Mary does things, she doesn’t just wait for things to happen to her. She is a subject, not an object. She has busted out of her tomb and is flying to heaven on her own accord.
This painting asks us: if Mary was crucified along with Christ –as many theologians have attested– wasn’t she resurrected, as well?
If Mary sacrificed her body for the sake of humanity –by giving birth to, nursing and caring for a child, and then following that child to a horrible death– doesn’t that mean that she, too, had her own Easter Moment? Didn’t she also she brake out of the tomb and rise triumphantly from the dead?
When we gather each Sunday to eat the Body and Blood of Christ, aren’t we eating her Body and Blood as well? A body that was born of her body and that shared her blood? As an altarpeice, this painting was intended to be placed directly behind the altar. It was the image that was front and center during the Eucharistic Prayer. “Take and eat,” the risen Mary is telling us “this is my body, given for you.”
This image brings to mind that other stuffy, uncomfortable old teaching about Mary. The one that calls her a Co-Redeemer with Christ. But unlike other representations of Mary as Co-Redeemer, this Mary isn’t a perfect exception to a flawed gender. She isn’t redeeming women from Eve’s sinful nature. Instead, she is celebrating women’s role in the resurrection of the world.
She isn’t even promoting rigid gender dichotomies. By being a feminine vision of the Resurrection, she’s actually queering gender. This Mary resembles a woman warrior much more than she resembles a submissive virgin. She is beautiful, but also powerful. She is fully woman and fully divine.
This painting has the ability to tell us something important about the feminine aspect of God’s saving power. It reminds women that we, too, are created in the image of God. We, too, play a role in the salvation of the world. We, too, have shared in the resurrection of Easter.
By allowing Mary to be the hero of her own story, we allow ourselves to be the heroes of our own stories. Like Mary, we have the option to say ‘yes’ to God. We have been chosen to magnify God’s greatness. And like Mary, we have no need to be afraid, because through her sacrifice, life has triumphed over death.
By breaking open her tomb and ascending into heaven, Mary is defying the men that would try to make God in their own image, by reminding them that God looks like us, too. She is telling us that even if we don’t look like Jesus, or can’t always relate to Jesus, there a place for us at God’s table. She’s made room for us. Come and eat.