The Patronal Feast of South Africa
18 August 2019 (transferred from 15 Aug)
Deacon Les Ruhrmund
On this glorious feast celebrating the Assumption of Our Lady, the patronal feast of South Africa, let me begin with a story or two.
Khanyisa Catholic High School is situated about 2kms outside Mthatha travelling in the direction of Butterworth and East London along the N2. I know the school well because I used the school hall for meetings twice a year for many years when I was still active in business.
Some 30kms further down the road is the small rural village of Qunu, where Nelson Mandela spent his childhood and where he build his home after he was released from prison in 1990. And where he is buried today.
There’s a story that Madiba once visited Khanyisa High School unannounced and that after talking to the staff and learners, he shook hands with every one of them – inspiring many of them and in some cases changing their lives forever.
When Mandela’s mother died following a heart attack in 1968, he was imprisoned on Robben Island and refused permission to attend her funeral. The authorities were afraid that he’d be abducted by foreign powers and given his freedom overseas.
He refers briefly to this painful experience in his autobiography describing his mother as ´the centre of my existence.”
We don’t know much about his mother but we do know that the residents of Qunu continue to hold her in high esteem and about eight years ago, they restored a church in her honour in the village; a Methodist church that she founded in 1960.
Some years ago, a young man whose brother was at school with my son, made an enormous fortune in software security and was invited to spend a weekend with Nelson Mandela at his home in Qunu and to join him at a presentation at a school in Mthatha.
The young man was introduced to the school learners in Xhosa which he didn’t understand after which there was wild cheering, singing and spontaneous dance. He was taken completely by surprise by this reception and expressed his astonishment to his host. Apparently a happy, dancing Madiba told him that he had just informed the learners that this outstanding, young, proudly South African entrepreneur had made a donation of R1m to their school.
These and many other stories about Nelson Mandela have as yet not been written down. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen; nor will they be forgotten by those who were there or by those who heard the stories from others who were there.
These unwritten stories tell us things about the man and his life that we otherwise would not know and the stories will be passed on from generation to generation.
That’s what we call tradition. Tradition means ‘to hand down’.
The Church has always taught and believed, from the very earliest origins of Christianity, that the Word of God is found not only in the written word of Scripture but also in the spoken word and witness of the followers of Jesus during apostolic times – the time from the first to the second century; that time before the written word, Scripture, was canonised towards the end of the fourth century.
Sacred Tradition, inspired by God, tells us how the early Christians expressed their faith and what they believed under the guidance and leadership of Jesus’ chosen Apostles.
The New Testament could not have been be compiled without the guidance and inspiration of God through Sacred Tradition.
Without Sacred Tradition we lose much of the humanity, the colour, the emotion and the active practices, beliefs and experiences of the first disciples of Jesus in the hundred or so years following his Ascension; that time when the church was first formed and developed by Christ’s Apostles.
An excellent example of Sacred Tradition is the Assumption.
Even though it wasn’t defined as official Church teaching until 1950 by Pope Pius XII, the Assumption of Mary has been believed (and never doubted) by Catholic Christians since the time of the Apostles.
The Assumption of Mary means that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven by Jesus; an absolute expression of his divine love and a further illustration of Mary’s exceptional and extraordinary role in God’s plan of salvation.
The salvation of the world is made possible only when Mary agrees to carry the son of God in her womb. The Assumption doesn’t glorify Mary; it glorifies God demonstrating the unimaginable power of his love and grace.
Mary never diverts attention from the worship that is due to God alone. Rather, she joins us in giving Him praise because she stands as a powerful witness to the great things that God can do in the life of those who believe.
In the first reading from John’s Book of Revelation we get a glimpse of her place in God’s kingdom:
‘And a great sign appeared in heaven,
A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet,
And on her head a crown of seven stars.’ (Rev 12:1)
The oldest written evidence of Marian prayer comes from a fragment of Egyptian papyrus dating back to about the year 250. On it is written in Greek ‘Mother of God, hear my supplications: suffer us not to be in adversity, but deliver us from danger.’
Christians have been venerating the Mother of Jesus and seeking her intervention right from apostolic times and that is what we’re doing at this Mass when we bring up our nation flag and sing our national anthem during the Offertory.
We’re offering God not only ourselves and our gifts but we are also offering our country. We’re asking for God’s protection for our country with the intercession of Mary, Assumed into Heaven.
In love and confidence and humility, in the words of the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, we should always be proud to pray the words given to us in Luke’s Gospel:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you;
Blessed are you among women,
And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.