Every year in Siena, circumstances permitting, there are at least two massive horse races; big crowds, that is, rather than huge horses (though, in some of the accompanying processions one does find the enormous Tuscan chianina). The races are each known as Il Palio. You might have seen them at the beginning of the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. Horses representing the different suburbs (or contrade) of Siena race to win il Palio.
The second race occurs during Ferragosto, the holiday period in August centred around the Solemnity of the Assumption of our Lady on 15 August. While it is the name of each race, il Palio is also the name of the banner (also il drappellone) that goes to the victor. Famously, the banner in August features an image of the Assumption, which usually has our Lady standing on some clouds with angels leading her to heaven.
There is another Palio in July. For this race, the banner uses the image of the Madonna of Provenzano. Often in this latter depiction, our Lady is shown with the clouds around her waist because we are approaching the festival of the Assumption and therefore she is not yet in heaven. Theologically and liturgically it may be dubious, but catechetically the images are quite memorable.
The huge celebrations in Siena these days may have more to do with the horse race, but it is worth remembering how big a feast the Assumption is. Even in Australia, it is one of the last holy days of obligation that has not been moved to an adjacent Sunday. That is: it is one of the few days outside of Sundays and Easter when the Church commands us to celebrate. It is worth remembering why.
There are, traditionally, three foundational mysteries to Christianity: the Trinity, the Incarnation and the life of grace. Or: God with God, God with us, and us with God. The Marian feasts are given to us to remember the most perfect exemplar of the life of grace, our Lady, the Mother of God. In the Immaculate Conception, we see the gift of grace reaching all the way back to the very beginning of life. In the Annunciation, we see the perfect response in grace to God’s Word. And in the Assumption, we see the destiny of the life of grace, the fulfilment of the initial gift of God to Mary and of Mary to God, eternal perfect communion.
An unlikely way into thinking about the Assumption might be the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams that was ubiquitous a few years back. The beginning of the chorus has the following lyrics:
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
It might seem a bit of a stretch to link this to the Assumption – and I am in no way suggesting that was the artist’s original intent – but both lines have something to say. Happiness as ‘a room without a roof’ speaks to that sense of elation and freedom that comes at moments of joy. The cliché of one’s heart ‘soaring’ is a similar description. I don’t think it is a stretch to see the two images of our Lady in the two banners for il Palio as pointing to something similar. We know that heaven is not above, but in art, in symbolism, there has always been something to that movement upwards. Instinctively, heaven has always been above us, Jacob’s Ladder being a famous example of this both in scripture (Genesis 28:10-19) and art (for example, Tintoretto, Blakeand Turner).
The second idea in the song is that “happiness is the truth”. This opens up huge discussions, including one the great religious controversies: how a good God can allow suffering. The Resurrection is our faith’s answer to the problem, but the Assumption follows closely behind. In the Resurrection, we see Christ conquer suffering, sin and death. In the Assumption, we see our Lady take full possession of that victory. The reality of the gift she made of herself at the Annunciation is fully revealed. God is with her and so she is with God. Forever.
The Assumption is therefore a key mystery through which we can better understand our participation in the Eucharist. Just like our Lady, we too hear God’s Word. Just like our Lady, we too are given the opportunity to make a total response. In the offertory, then, when we hand over our lives – our lives that include all of who we are: soul, body, family, friends, those whom we love, those who need our help, our work, our suffering, our joys and our sorrows, all of creation – we ask Christ to do with us what he has done with our Lady: join us to the offering he makes of himself to the Father, and so take us (all of us) with him into the divine life, the life of the Trinity.
Finally, the Assumption is not only when we celebrate our Lady’s place in heaven and therefore our hope of a similar destiny. Because our Lady is with God and so in Love, we know she is for us, just as her Son is. We therefore know she is looking out for us, she is praying for us, she is helping us make our gift of ourselves and so join the communion of saints.
Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us.