Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
"The Better Part"
By Rev. Joseph McSorley
These words, in the communion of the Mass of to-day, are pointed with significance. They seem to sum up, as briefly as can be done, the course of an ideal Christian life. Typified splendidly in that greatest of all saints, our blessed Mother, the supreme aspiration, the common destiny of every human soul, is precisely this: to choose the better part here below, and in heaven to possess the better part eternally. There is nothing else that greatly matters, the day on which we chance to make our appearance upon the world's big stage; the race, the family, the position we lay claim to; the character, the trials, the successes, and the failures that fill up our record on the pages of history; the age at which we die and the manner of our passing; what things we have achieved and what we leave unfinished, doomed to speedy disappearance; the way men think and feel about us after we have gone - there is not one of these details which will hold any great significance throughout eternity, unless insofar as it makes us fit, or unfit, for an epitaph like that written over the empty tomb of our blessed Lady: "Mary hath chosen the better part and it shall never be taken away from her."
The Feast of the Assumption, dear brethren, puts before us two great facts - the happy death of the blessed Virgin, and her immediate entrance into the bliss which beatifies both soul and body in heaven. It commemorates her final triumph. The words of our text lay stress upon the condition essential to the triumph of every human creature, namely, union with God, effected in this life and made permanent in eternity.
There are but two sorts of existence possible for a human being - to live with God, or apart from Him. All the varied history of the most complicated and adventurous life falls simply and inevitably into two divisions, a part which meets with Divine approval and a part which merits Divine reprobation. Over and over again, at every moment of our moral existence, we are exercising a power of choice between the better and the worse; between God and self, between the beginnings of heaven and the beginnings of hell, and the things we choose in time we shall, in a sense, retain, when time has passed away. It is the better part, God's will; or it is the worse part, sinful selfishness. In any event, it becomes our lot forever. As the tree falls, so it must lie. All that death does is to make our previous choice an irrevocable one.
As an instance of a human will that never once failed to elect wisely, as a symbol of consistent choosing of the better part, our Lady is presented for our reverence and our imitation this morning. We seem to behold her in all the many stages of her life in such different scenes. She is a quiet, house-loving young girl; or a highly favored saint, visited by the Holy Ghost, endowed with God's supreme gift; or a simple-hearted mother, in the ecstasy of beholding her firstborn son; or the wife of a village carpenter and mother of a growing boy; or the stricken widow of a man who has died, leaving wife and child to the world's cold care; or a broken-hearted woman who son is bidding her goodbye forever; or a patient sufferer who stands upon Calvary's hill, under the shadow of the Cross, and accepts the will of God, though it comes to her in the form of a most crushing blow that ever fell upon anyone in all the long history of the world. Throughout these different scenes and parts; in youth as in maturity, in sorrow as in gladness, within the narrow domestic circle or standing upon the highway before the eyes of all the world; when things are sweet, and when things are bitter, always and ever, it is precisely the same with her. She never fails to choose aright; she never once rejects the better part. She is on the side of God, from first to last, not ever on the side of self. And her consistent choice of God and the things of God has now been eternally in heaven.
This is what makes her a model for everyone of us, no matter where our lot is cast, no matter in what epoch we live. For us the round of daily duties will not always be peaceful, nor an easy road to follow. Accidents will happen; something is bound to go wrong; or the whims of fortune, or our own limitations, worry us, tempt us to lose sight of the ideal, invite us to fall down in worship before the practical. Ways of conduct that fit in with the law of God appear un-profitable, or old-fashioned, or causes of sorrow and poverty. We are inclined to abandon God, disposed to forget the better things. This is what happens in one way or another to each of us at times. And at such times the figure of our blessed Lady rises before us to encourage us, to inspire our hearts, to remind us that we shall retain eternally what we at this moment choose; the better or the worse, she lifts up up with the vision of a supreme blessedness of mind and body, already begun, never to be discontinued.
It is not merely in her present exaltation that our Lady comes before us this morning; it is not only as gloriously triumphant that she is pictured on this feast. Though to-day is, indeed, the festival of her triumph, we are to bear in mind also the warfare that preceded the moment of final victory; we are led in spirit over the long, hard, painful road trodden by the feet of the Queen of Saints; and we are told to remember that there is an essential connection between the fighting and the victory, that what she now possesses is the same as what she chose in every moment and in every circumstance of her life, that is to say, God and His blessed will, "the Better Part."
In this knitting together the past and the present of her life, we come to realize how and why such feasts and such doctrines as the truly Christian conscience, can never be less than practical to the most ordinary men and women traveling along the dusty paths of life, concerned with petty things like the earning of daily bread and the fulfilling of domestic obligations. In God's great plan their souls; course is not unlike the pilgrimage of Mary. They live in a different age, and a different land, and a different set of circumstances, it is true; and yet God asks of them and He promises to them just what He asked of her and promised to her - the doing of His will on earth, and, in the life to come, eternal blessedness of soul and body. To them, as to her, the alternative of good and ill, of duty and of selfishness, is constantly presented. Their life's true work will be achieved if throughout the weeks and months and years to them assigned, they consistently choose the better things and reject the worse.
How consoling a teaching for those who are heavy burdened in this present life! They may suffer from physical want; they may be looked down upon by men; they may realize early in their days that the chance of attaining human success is not theirs. But from the teaching of Christ they learn, and by such reminders as this present feast they are kept awake, that a Divine success is easily within their possibilities. They need not go outside the field of their ordinary duties, nor use any other faculties than those with which they have been gifted. If, in each little daily issue they consistently choose the better part, the side of God, then infallibly they shall attain a Divinely great success and receive an eternally enduring reward. Such is the glad news announced to the poor ones of the earth, to the weak and suffering and despised. In the most menial office, on the sick-bed of the invalid, in the prison cell, this lesson has many a time been learned to the everlasting comfort of the learner. To-day, the picture of our Lady assumed into heaven, and the inspiring words of the text carry that same lesson home again to many who have forgotten it. Man has but to choose what is better here upon earth; and throughout the ages of eternity what is better shall be given him.
To the penitent sinner this teaching appeals with peculiar force, in fact the very words of the text have been taken from a phrase addressed by our Lord to the first great penitent of the New Dispensation. So long as the power of choosing remains, so long as life still continues, it is possible to make sure of the future, to compensate for the past. Often in the sinner's lack of confidence lies the greatest obstacle to his resurrection. When the vision of new life has once been seen, he presses forward heartily on the road to holiness. This necessary confidence, this vision of new life, many a fallen and discouraged spirit will discover in the fact that the soul and body of our blessed Lady are now gloriously and happy and the Kingdom and heaven; and that this unspeakably great gift has come to her, because here upon earth she ever chose the better things and took the part of God.
This feast is also especially significant to those who have dear ones dead. Death is to all a barrier, indeed; yet to the Christian it is a barrier of the senses only. Faith penetrates beyond. The believing eye, the hopeful heart, the devout imagination, follow the departed soul into the other world, understand its fate, picture its blessedness, anticipate the reunion which shall one day come to all the children of the Merciful Father. The Assumption of our blessed Lady is, as it were, a picture, a revelation, a pledge, of what is coming to all who are found faithful at the end, to all who have died choosing God and embracing the better things. Surely, the worst bitterness of death is lost for those who have received such consolation as this; surely they are now unwilling to wish back their beloved dead back upon earth; surely they feel themselves now inspired to faithful conduct, that the promise of reunion in bliss may not be made vain for them.
Let it be therefore to us a watchword and a battle cry, "The Better Part. When puzzled in the darkness, when weary on the road, when baffled in the struggle, when pressed by temptation to the point of death, we must remember that we have irrevocably dedicated to God's cause; that to die for Him is easy, that to surrender with honor is impossible. "The Better Part!" That means the doing of what conscience bids us do, placing God before every creature, measuring the rights of friends and relatives according to the standards of the Gospel, sacrificing pleasant experiences, leaving behind us many things which men set high value upon, reckoning the companionship of Christ as the supreme boon of our pilgrimage. "The Better Part!" Let us choose it consistently, dear brethren, and like our blessed Mother, we shall find that it will never be taken away from us in all eternity.