Homily for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary
Readings: Rev 11:19; 12:1-6,10; 1 Cor 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
15 August 2021
Today we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of Mary. I preached about the meaning and significance of the feast last year, and I have little to add. This year, I would like to reflect on Mary’s Magnificat embedded in today’s gospel scene which includes Mary’s travelling immediately to the hill country and keeping Elizabeth company during the last trimester of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, as well as the joyful and graced meeting of the two pregnant mothers with Mary emulating Hannah the mother of Samuel, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.
The early readers of Luke’s gospel would have been well aware that in the first book of Samuel, Elkanah had two wives – Peninnah who bore him children and Hannah who was barren. Every year when they went up to the temple to offer sacrifice, Peninnah would taunt Hannah to annoy her. Hannah was inconsolable even though Elkanah loved her more than he did Peninnah. The priest Eli caught sight of Hannah when she was praying from the depth of her grief and resentment as if she were drunk. Hannah pledged to Yahweh that if her wish for a male child were granted she would commit him to Yahweh for the whole of his life. Eli told her to go in peace “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” Hannah and Elkanah then conceived. Samuel was born. Hannah did not take Samuel to the temple the first year but kept him at home. Once the baby was weaned, Hannah accompanied Elkanah to the temple at Shiloh in the second year, leaving the child in the temple. It was then that Hannah recited this prayer:
My heart exults in Yahweh,
my horn is exalted in my God,
my mouth derides my foes,
for I rejoice in your power of saving.
There is none as holy as Yahweh,
(indeed, there is no one but you)
no rock like our God.
Do not speak and speak with haughty words,
let not arrogance come from your mouth.
For Yahweh is an all-knowing God
and his is the weighing of deeds.
The bow of the mighty is broken
but the feeble have girded themselves with strength.
The sated hire themselves out for bread
but the famished cease from labour;
the barren woman bears sevenfold,
but the mother of many is desolate.
Yahweh gives death and life,
brings down to Sheol and draws up;
Yahweh makes poor and rich,
he humbles and also exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust,
he lifts the needy from the dunghill
to give them a place with princes,
and to assign them a seat of honour;
for to Yahweh the props of the earth belong,
on these he has poised the world.
He safeguards the steps of his faithful
but the wicked vanish in darkness
(for it is not by strength that man triumphs).
The enemies of Yahweh are shattered,
the Most High thunders in the heavens.
Yahweh judges the ends of the earth,
he endows his king with power,
he exalts the horn of his Anointed.
Having recited the prayer, Hannah entrusted baby Samuel to the priest Eli and departed. Scripture scholar Garrett Galvin says, “The theme of reversal runs through this prayer. As God has reversed Israel’s bondage to Egypt in the past, we now hear of God reversing more personal difficulties. As Hannah was the underdog to Peninnah, so we hear of God breaking the bows of the mighty, humbling the rich, and causing the wicked to perish…. God reverses the plight of the underdogs.”
Mary’s Magnificat follows the contours of Hannah’s prayer, rejoicing in the reversals in life which seemed unimaginable. Like Hannah, Mary is to give birth to a son who will be committed to Yahweh. Like Hannah, Mary will suffer the pain of separation and loss. Like Hannah, she expresses profound gratitude to Yahweh – a gratitude seeped in the sustained experience of suffering and loss.
That’s why Mary’s Magnificat speaks to us on so many levels. It is steeped in sorrow as well as joy, loss as well as gain, brutal reality as well as idealistic hope, defeat as well as triumph. Mary’s Assumption is so other worldly. But Mary speaks to us because she is so like us. She offers hope that the worst of situations can be reversed.
Luke and his community of readers saw Mary modelling her response to Yahweh on the response of Hannah by committing her son unreservedly to God, committing herself unreservedly to God. In the midst of imperfection, sinfulness and power plays, we are invited to do the same. The one who proclaims the Magnificat is committed to making a difference in our world, proclaiming the greatness of the one who “has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly”, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
This past week, there has been renewed discussion about Australia’s punitive policy towards asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. On Friday we marked the ninth anniversary of the Gillard Government’s re-introduction of offshore processing of asylum seekers – a costly, punitive system rendered more oppressive by each successive government. This month we mark the 20th anniversary of the first use of offshore processing by the Howard Government – a standoff which took place off Christmas Island, a standoff which continues to define so much about contemporary Australia.
In late August 2001 a large Norwegian container vessel MV Tampa was steaming from Perth to Singapore on the high seas when the captain, Arne Rinnan, received a call from the Rescue Coordination Centre of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority that a boat was in distress on the high seas. Under the guidance of an Australian Coastwatch plane, the captain sailed for about four hours to pick up 433 people from a wooden, overcrowded boat, Palapa 1, which was within the Indonesian maritime rescue zone. Though far from the Australian mainland, the Palapa was only about 75 nautical miles from Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean closer to Indonesia than to the Western Australian coastline. The captain intended to proceed to the Indonesian port of Merak about 250 nautical miles distant to discharge his human cargo. He then intended to complete his voyage to Singapore with a cargo of largely empty containers. His ship usually carried a crew of 27, so it was not designed or licensed to carry hundreds of people long distances. The ship was licensed to carry only 40 persons.
Once all of the boat people were on board, five of the new passengers came up to the bridge to speak with the captain. According to Arne Rinnan, “They were in an aggravated mood and they said that if we did not head to Christmas Island then they would go crazy or start jumping overboard.” Rinnan decided that the most responsible decision he could make as a captain concerned for the safety of his ship, his crew and his new passengers was to change course and head for Christmas Island, the nearest harbour, discharging the 433 at the closest landfall. Very soon the Australian authorities were on the radio denying him permission to enter Australian territorial waters. By daybreak on Monday 27 August 2001, Rinnan thought that “some politics [had] got into the picture”. That afternoon Prime Minister John Howard told the Australian parliament, “We have indicated to the captain that permission to land in Australia will not be granted to this vessel … Australia has sought on all occasions to balance against the undoubted right of this country to decide who comes here and in what circumstances, a right that any other sovereign nation has, our humanitarian obligations as a warm-hearted, decent international citizen.” At the diplomatic level, Australia then informed Norway that the conveying of a distress call by the Australian authorities “does not carry with it any obligation to allow the persons rescued into Australian territory”. Despite, or because of, the threats made to the captain by the passengers on the bridge, Australia expected the Tampa to take to the high seas with 460 persons aboard and 40 life jackets, returning the rescued persons “either to their point of departure or to the original intended destination of the Tampa”.
On 29 August 2001 the Tampa entered into Australian territorial waters approaching Christmas Island. The prime minister told parliament that the captain had decided on this course of action because a spokesman for the asylum seekers “had indicated that they would begin jumping overboard if medical assistance was not provided quickly”. Captain Rinnan gave a different reason for his decision: “We weren’t seaworthy to sail to Indonesia. There were life jackets for only 40 people. The sanitary conditions were terrible.” The SAS came aboard and took over the Tampa. An Australian Defence Force doctor was given 43 minutes to make a medical assessment of the 433 asylum seekers. He reported, “Four persons required IV (2 urgent including 1 woman 8 months pregnant).” Captain Rinnan was surprised at the prompt medical assessment, because his crew had already identified ten people who were barely conscious lying in the sun on the deck of the ship. The prime minister then made a finely timed ministerial statement to parliament insisting that “nobody — and I repeat nobody — has presented as being in need of urgent medical assistance as would require their removal to the Australian mainland or to Christmas Island”.
A year later, the UNHCR presented the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award to Captain Arne Rinnan and the crew of the Tampa. At the presentation, Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed deep appreciation of “the team’s noble and principled humanitarian action, and its adherence to the time-honoured code of chivalry at sea”. He acknowledged “that the manner in which the team fulfilled its international obligations towards people in distress reflected the true spirit and commitment of Fridtjof Nansen”.
Captain Rinnan’s internationally acknowledged chivalry was demonstrated from the moment he diverted his ship to pick up the asylum seekers, during the stand-off as he approached Christmas Island, and until he discharged the asylum seekers under the supervision of the Australian SAS. Captain Rinnan said, “I’d do it again. I hope all my seafaring colleagues would do the same thing.”
Fear and isolationism need not defeat us. We can both secure our borders and honour our international humanitarian obligations without terrorising asylum seekers on the high seas, detaining them in the desert, transporting them to Pacific islands, and putting on hold their reunion with family and their new life among us. The Tampa has long come and gone, but our governments of both political persuasions have continued tampering with asylum, building non-durable, indecent firebreaks. Twenty years on, it’s time for us to return to being “a warm-hearted, decent international citizen”, at home and abroad. With Mary and Hannah, we proclaim the greatness of the one who reverses the plight of the underdogs, pulling down the princes and exalting the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
 See https://catholicoutlook.org/fr-franks-homily-the-solemnity-of-the-assumption-of-the-blessed-virgin-mary/
 Garrett Galvin, ‘First Samuel’, in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, Paulist Press, 2018, p. 248 at p. 252
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).