December 18, 2016—The Fourth Sunday in Advent
In last Sunday’s sermon, I said that we so often refer to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” that some may be forgiven for thinking that “Christ” is his last name. “Christ,” however, is not his name but his title. Jesus is the “Christ," the Holy One of God (Is:53.11, Mk:1.24), whose coming among us was announced by the prophets. Jesus revealed himself to be the Christ, the King of Israel and Savior of sinful humankind, by perfectly fulfilling those prophecies (Is:35; 53.1-12; 25.6-9).
In like manner, we so regularly refer to Jesus’s mother as the Blessed Virgin Mary that we are apt to think “Virgin” was her given name. But as with the title Christ, so too “Virgin” is a title given to Jesus’s mother. What that means and why Jesus’s mother should bear this title, with all the reverence it deserves, will be the subject of this very short but poignant homily.
Jesus’s mother is called not merely “Mary” but is dignified by the title “Virgin,” to call attention to her unique status as the young woman of Isaiah’s prophecy, the virgin who would give birth to him who would be hailed as “Emmanuel, God among us”( Is:7.14; Mt:1.23). As such, her virginity was not only physical, it was spiritual. She who would become the perfect servant of God, whose consent would enable the redemptive act was, as the archangel Gabriel announced, perfect, “full of grace”(Lk:1.28). Mary, by her steadfast obedience, possessed everything that the disobedient Eve had lost. She who was elected to bring about the restoration of humanity to full communion with God was herself holy in the way that the first virgin, Eve, was holy. But where Eve, tempted by the fallen angel, disobeyed God by not trusting his word, Mary proved herself to be a woman of complete integrity, a model of sainthood, the penultimate believer. If only Eve had said to the angel as Mary did to Gabriel, “Let it be unto me according to [God’s] word” (Lk:1.38), how different the history of the world would have been. Where Eve failed, Mary succeeded. Unlike Eve, Mary dedicated herself to God body and soul, keeping herself entirely from sin, and by so doing she earned the title Virgin, with a capital “V.” Where the first virgin, Eve, by her disobedience became the mother of a race of rebellious sinners, the Virgin Mary by her obedience to God became the mother of the faithful, the mother of the church (Jn:19.26–27); the mother of all who receive redemption by grace through faith in God’s only begotten Son, her only son, Jesus Christ.
Mary was not divine by nature, but her Son was. Many a mother thinks that the sun rises and sets on her child. It is the nature of maternal love for a mother to see God’s image in her child. But in the case of Mary, when she looked into the eyes of Jesus, she saw more there than an image of divinity. She saw in his eyes the very wisdom and holiness of God incarnate among us. When she held her baby to her breast, she held not only a precious gift from God. She held God himself to her breast. Mary a creature of God nursed our Creator. For that reason alone we honor her above all others. For that reason alone, as Mary herself prophesied, “All generations will call me blessed” (Lk:1.48).
Many people dismiss the gospel of Jesus Christ out of hand as a fiction because they say, as Ernest Hemingway put it, that no “thinking person” believes in the tooth fairy or unicorns let alone deities. We live in a vain and pompous age that worships human reason without even asking from where it comes. But even those who have faith in God struggle to imagine how God the creator of heaven and earth could become a child, completely dependent on one of his creatures for life. This mystery of God’s dependence on a woman to nurture him at her breast and then teach him, as good mothers do, how to be a loving and strong man is at the heart of Christian faith. Theologians call this mystery of God the Creator becoming a creature of the earth and taking on human nature including all the vulnerability of childhood the doctrine of “the Incarnation.” Saint John put it succinctly by saying simply: “[God] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn:1.14). That is the essential mystery at the genesis of our faith, a dogma we believe because God has revealed the truth of it.
Next Saturday night on Christmas Eve and on the two Sundays following as well as on Epiphany, we’ll preach in depth on the doctrine of the Incarnation. But today we pause to ask, “What does this say about Mary? Who was she and why should we honor her?” We honor her because God came into the world through her. No one is born without a mother and Jesus was no exception to that law of nature. He would after death, following his glorious resurrection, ascend into heaven and return to his Father by his own volition and power (Acts:1.9). But to become one of us, God had to first be formed, as are we all, in his mother’s womb (Gal:4.4). Mary was the mother of God. She was not in the beginning with God. But she was the one God conceived from the beginning and then, at the time of his own choosing, formed in perfect holiness to be his mother. So as to exclude any confusion, the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 435 gave Mary the title of Theotokos, "Mother of God."
Of all the people who have ever lived, apart from Jesus, Mary, having been given the highest honor by God, is deserving of the most honor from us. Mary is to the church, the visible kingdom of God on earth, as the Ark of the Covenant was to ancient Israel. The Ark of the Covenant was the gold plated box that God told Moses to construct in which Moses put the Ten Commandments (Ex:25; 34.28). The Ark literally held the words of God written by the finger of God on stone tablets. The Ark was, therefore, the most sacred and honored object in Israel. But sadly, because of Israel’s sins, God allowed Israel’s enemies to steal and destroy the ark. The story of Israel’s redemption begins with the restoration of the Ark of the Covenant. But a new covenant required a new ark. Mary is the new ark. The new ark, the sacred symbol of Israel’s redemption, would bear the Word of God not in a wooden box built by men but in her womb. The word in the ark of Mary’s womb was not placed there by a man. God entered the ark of Mary’s womb by the Spirit after obtaining her permission (Lk:1.38). The word in Mary’s womb was not like the word in the first Ark; a dead letter carved in stone. The word in the ark of her womb was Jesus, the living Word of God come to his people in person (Jn.1.1–14). Mary is, therefore, greater than the Ark of the Old Covenant as a living soul is greater than a dead stone. And the word that issued from her womb is so much greater than words carved in stone as meeting an author in person and having him address you directly is greater than reading his book. But in this case, in the case of the gospel of man’s salvation, the author we meet is not just a man but is the one we call Emmanuel, God among us, God born of a woman, God born of Mary.
My point today is simply this: as Christians, as children born again by grace into the New Covenant of faith, we cannot show too much honor or devotion or respect for Mary. We owe our salvation to her son. But our salvation depends in part on our imitating him (Eph:5.1). He was from the beginning dependent on her and up until age thirty when he left home to begin his ministry he was obedient to her (Lk:2.51). All of us who have been baptized have been united to Jesus Christ by grace. His life is implanted in our souls and so we are privileged to say with all the saints, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal.2.20). Since Jesus lives in us by grace, his Father becomes our Father (Mt.6.9) and his mother becomes our mother (Jn: 19.24). It is a blessing to have parents who love you. What a wonderful gift God has given us in Mary. We have in Mary a mother who loves each of us as much as she loves her son Jesus.
Mary so loved her son that she followed him all the way to the cross. And she, loving him who lives in you who have received him in baptism, will do the same for you. When you are on the cross, when you have nowhere else to turn, remember Mary who loves you as dearly as she loves him who is the life within you. Pray for her help, and you’ll find in Mary a mother who loves you more than words can express; a partner in prayer whose prayers—because they flow from a mother to her son—bear not the nature of a request but of a maternal command (Jn:2.3-7). Believe in Jesus and as she did, trust his Mother Mary. For in giving Jesus to the world she has given us the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s love which is the blessing of Christmas to all who, with Jesus, honor His mother and ours, the Blessed Virgin Mary.