Faith & Reason: Behind Diana and Mary lie a million unseen acts

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OUR PUBLIC stories are mostly about death: the Princess of Wales, Louise Woodward, Frederick West; famine, Aids, the Gulf War. Even where an issue has much wider social implications, we dramatise it by highlighting the deaths of individuals: drug addiction, BSE, road traffic, Third World debt. That is curious, because, unlike most of our ancestors, we talk very little about what death means. We have no settled, collective view on whether death is the end or the beginning; separation or reunion; oblivion, hell or heaven; terrifying destruction or a part of nature. More to the point, we become embarrassed and inarticulate if we ever discuss our hopes and fears.

Throughout history, we have told one another stories about the meaning of death. The Christian story of creation, incarnation and resurrection gives death its meaning by setting it in the context of life: Christ's resurrection affected not only Christ - it offers the hope of life to all humanity. And so Christians have concentrated over the centuries on those human stories that explain death in terms of life.

The death of Jesus's mother, Mary, has focused Christian reflection. The New Testament tells nothing of her end; and the vacuum left by Scripture was filled by speculation and story-telling. Early Christians were also puzzled by the disappearance of her body: for the bodily remains of other important saints had been located and were revered. Some Christians, like Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis, were cautious: "Nobody knows anything about what happened to her in the end." Others told elaborate and imaginative tales: in one, Mary is carried bodily from her tomb into Paradise on a chariot surrounded by angels and accompanied by Moses, Enoch, Elijah and Christ. Those of a more philosophical temperament used to ask: would it not seem fitting for Mary to be bodily in heaven with her son? For Jesus took his own flesh from her and was resurrected and glorified in that same flesh.

Gradually the stories and the theories had crystallised into prayer as the celebration of Mary's death on 15 August spread across Europe. In the Eastern Church, the feast is named the Dormition, the "falling- asleep" of the Virgin. In the West, it is called the Assumption, the "taking up" of Mary into heaven. When Pope Pius XII in 1950 defined the doctrine of the Assumption, he was thus distilling centuries of Christian conversation and worship. The essence of it all was this: that after her earthly life, Mary was "taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven".

A bare doctrine loses the liveliness of narratives and arguments, but it helps us to focus on the essentials. Why might it matter what happened to Mary? For a religious belief to make sense, it must make claims not only about God, but also about ourselves. Otherwise, it remains dry and abstract.

The first point about the Assumption is that it emphasises the link between Mary and Christ. Mary is honoured because of the basic facts of her motherhood: through her the Son of God took flesh and became a human being. She bore him, suckled him, brought him up and loved him as a mother. His flesh was her flesh. Consequently, two things are important: on the physical level, her body; on the personal level, the mutual affection of mother and son. These two themes are played in a thousand variations through Christian art and music, poetry and prose. It is unsurprising that, when Christians explored what had happened to Mary after her death, they insisted upon her physical presence, and her closeness to her son.

Mary was exceptional because she was the mother of Christ. But she was also a human being; and ideas about her reflect beliefs about human life as a whole. It makes sense to believe that Mary is present bodily with her son if we hope for something similar ourselves: to be physically present to one another, in affection and friendship. We can only imagine what resurrected bodies, "spiritual bodies", as St Paul calls them, could be like. But we can say that, if God is to transform human beings after death, he will preserve their humanity; and that the essence of that humanity is presence and friendship.

Such a doctrine will seem shockingly precise in our age of fluid and tangled uncertainties. It may serve at least to sharpen the question: what matters about death? Consequently, it may force us to ask: what matters about life? For, if we recognise that the essence of humanity is physical presence and shared friendship, we may understand this life more clearly.

We will still shudder at the dramatic murders. But we will also work to avoid the everyday, collective abuses of human flesh and human friendship in which we all collude: abortion, homelessness, environmental destruction, hunger and war. We will still honour a princess with a gift for affection. But we will also acknowledge more openly a million unseen acts of warmth and generosity, loyalty and courage, in families, in schools, in hospitals, in local neighbourhoods.

If we clarify why death matters, we will clarify why life matters. Our beliefs about Mary, like our beliefs about Diana, can tell us a lot about ourselves.