Light in August is the name of a novel by William Faulkner (1932). August and Everything After is the title track of the Counting Crows’ breakthrough album (1993). Both occurred to me as I was looking for a title of my own, and thinking about the Lord’s Transfiguration, a great feast that falls within the preparatory fast that precedes the Dormition, or Assumption, of his mother.
August, I was thinking, is especially dense with the mystery of salvation.
Both titles fit only fortuitously. Faulkner’s novel has little to do with the Transfiguration, though it is doubtless shaped by Christian stories, and it certainly reveals much darkness. The Counting Crows song (like the album as a whole) is also freckled with cruciform shadows, but it is certainly more haunted by Christ than Christian. But even broken clocks tell true some of the time, and the opening line of the song fits here, if only by coincidence:
They’re waking up Maria ’cause everybody else has got someplace to go.”
Someplace to go — where are we going exactly? For me it’s a bigger and more pointed question than where we’ve come from. “Love in the lover cannot be idle,” says St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 123; our hearts are always moving us somewhere. Where am I going? Paired together in our timekeeping, these two great feasts present us with a glimpse.
On the mount we see — with Peter and James and John — Jesus at home, as it were, Christ in glory. In this dazzling splendor of light, Jesus’ identity is unveiled and made plain for them. Jesus is the One who lit the face of Moses, the Word of the Lord himself, spoken to the Prophets. He is “truly the radiance of the Father,” as the Feast’s kontakion says, echoing the Letter to the Hebrews. The light of Tabor reveals and declares the Lord’s divinity shining through and from his body. Resplendent and radiant, his flesh is lit with divine glory. The disciples understood when they saw it — they had reached the destination, they’d gotten there, why not just stay?
“Let us build three booths,” they say. They had indeed seen the true light, but Jesus wasn’t finished. He rebuked them and turned toward Jerusalem.
Writing about the Transfiguration in the fourteenth century, St. Gregory Palamas insists that what the Apostles saw on Tabor was not a metamorphosis. Jesus was revealed, not transformed. Nor was the Transfiguration simply pyrotechnics or special effects, divinely contrived to capture our attention or elicit our faith. Rather, it was the disclosure to the disciples of Christ as he really was and is, from the beginning. To quote from a liturgical hymn, “What appeared today was hidden by the flesh, and the original beauty, more than resplendent, has been unveiled today.”
Christ is glory.
The Transfiguration also reveals to us what will be. What the Apostles saw on Mount Tabor is a sneak preview of what we will see someday, in the final vision. That revelation of Jesus to us will be for us the promised transformation:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
“Christ will be for all eternity as he then appeared,” St. Gregory emphasizes.
This same light of Tabor will shine on us and make us shine too: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43).
Waking up Maria
For people who aren’t accustomed to it, this great feast presents a puzzle, at best. I remember once, shortly after I had attached myself to the Catholic Church nearly twenty five years ago, I bumped into a friend from school just as I was on my way to Mass. I invited him to tag along. He was the son of a preacher, and he accepted the invitation.
“So basically, you believe in Mary instead of Jesus?” he asked me afterward.
It was the Feast of the Assumption, and it was probably the wrong day to bring my friend.
In reply to his question, I rehearsed a few pat answers that I had handy. The honor we give Mary, I explained, is different from the reverence we owe God, and so on. Those answers aren’t wrong, but a few decades later they seem to me less useful and beside the point. For one thing, they really only address the concern given in my friend’s question: isn’t it problematic to make so much about Mary? Doesn’t it undermine the absolute uniqueness of Jesus, the One Mediator?
For all the worry about this “problem,” I have to admit that I don’t worry about that at all. I don’t think I have ever met a single person who was seriously confused about Mary’s status. Moreover, in my explanation then, venerating Mary was really only a little extra, an addendum that doesn’t really break the rules. I doubt my explanation helped address my friend’s puzzlement at all, any more than it really explained the Church’s or my own practice: Why make so much about Mary in the first place?
Mary’s “falling asleep,” her Assumption into heaven, is not remote from the mysteries of the Christian faith at all, and neither is she. The Mother of God is central to Christianity because she accompanies the singular bombshell that Christians confess — that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The eternal and uncreated God has a mother. Jesus’s humanity didn’t descend from heaven, made anew specially for the purpose. “Born of a woman” and “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), he has become one of us by receiving our nature from this one woman, his mother, Mary. The Theotokos stands at the center of our faith because our faith is centered on the Incarnation.
Like all the commemorations of Mary’s life, the Assumption celebrates not some independent Marian economy, but the works of God. Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, came “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
His lordship and divinity are not compromised because he glorifies the saints. He alone is the Holy One, the Lord, but his reach extends through time and space from the very beginning to the very end. This great work of salvation does not compete with his singular primacy over the cosmos but rather declares and completes it:
He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (Col. 1:18)
In Mary’s death and glorification, God brings to pass the saving purpose of the Son’s life, death, and Resurrection in our flesh. She who is blessed for all the generations, “who hears the word of God and believes it” at her death, becomes a seal of the promise and purpose of the Lord’s Incarnation.
The Lord’s Resurrection isn’t a kind of credential, suitably arranged for us to believe the truth of his teaching about other things. As both the how and the what of his saving purpose, Jesus rises from the dead to trample death and to bestow immortality on a world that is perishing. The Assumption of the Mother of God confirms that Jesus will indeed be the head of a great body, the firstborn from the dead. Death may be the last thing to be abolished, but Christ’s victory echoes already in Mary. Celebrating her Assumption, we sound the joyful noise of salvation, we declare our hope in the same expectation for the life of the world to come: “O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Isaiah 26:19)
We celebrate, we applaud, we cheer as God does in Mary what he will do for his Church.
August is bright with the light of salvation. Paired together in our timekeeping, these two great feasts point us toward our end, purposed and promised in Jesus, our hope and our salvation. Our hope for consummation is hope for the vision of Christ “as he is” (1 John 3:2). Accordingly, the vision of Christ transfigured suggests “what we will be,” a reflected brilliance to come, a human nature resplendent, translucent with the divine glory of the Son, shining in starry numbers variously bright.
In Mary’s falling asleep, we celebrate the same hope for “what we will be.” She herself is not the light, but she shines as we hope we shall, that he may be all in all. She is the bride, glorious and spotless and radiant, the woman clothed with the sun. None of those things that Scripture says of the Church are misplaced on Mary. But the words are for us too: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isa. 60:1).
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:10).