St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Advent 4, December 20, 2020
Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder, Sermon on Luke 1. 26-38.
Today we have come to the 4th Sunday in Advent, and our last Sunday in this season of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. In our Gospel lesson today we heard the good news of The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1. 31) Today I want to reflect with you on the significance of the Virgin Mary and the role she plays in our faith.
Have you ever wondered why it is that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th? Back in the 1800s an anti-Christian historian proposed that this was an attempt by the Church to “Christianize” the ancient Roman pagan celebration of Saturnalia, which marked the return or re-birth of Saturn, the Roman sun god at the time of the winter solstice. For pagans, then and now, this was viewed as a hostile take-over by the Church of a good party.
But this completely misconstrues the origins of Christmas, and it’s what happens when you take the Virgin Mary out of the picture. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 is due to the prior celebration that takes place every year on March 25th, and that is “The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary!” which is day Mary conceived in her womb the Son of God. You can do the math. Count off the months from March to December, and you come to nine, which as any mother knows, is ordinarily the period of gestation of a human baby. Jesus arrives right on time!
But this raises another question: Why March 25th ? “According to ancient tradition Jesus was crucified on March 25, at the time of the Passover, which according to Jewish tradition was also the date on which the world was created. This, of course, makes little sense historically. But it makes perfect sense, theologically. And we are in the business of doing theology… March 25th declares that God creates the world for the sake of His people Israel, who prepare the way for the Advent or coming of the Lord. And the reason for His Advent was to die and rise again. Do you see how it all fits together? Ultimately, the reason God created the world was for the sake of the Advent of Jesus Christ. In other words, Easter is the reason for Christmas, for,as St. John tells us in the prologue to His Gospel which gets read in Church at Christmas, this crucified and risen Jesus is “the Word through whom all things were made.” (John 1.2)
Now as St. Luke tells us today Mary was a Virgin, which is to say she had not had any sexual relations prior to the annunciation. Mary is no fool. She knows where babies come from, and she gives voice to our bewilderment and confusion when she says to the angel, “How can this be?” The angel explains, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefor the child to be bornwill be holy; he will be called Son of God…For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1.35)
So we here we have a twin paradox. The first paradox: a virgin conceives in her womb without the help of a human father. The second paradox: the child that is conceived also happens to be God. The first paradox is the effective sign of the second, in the same way that the empty tomb is sign of the resurrection, which expresses the paradoxical truth of the Christian life: Life is something we enter into not being born, but by dying. “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.“(Mark 8.35).
We are dealing here, as St. Paul tells us today with mysteries that transcend human reason. In the person of Jesus Christ, the Divine and Human Natures are united “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.” (Council of Chalcedon A.D. 451) What does this mean? “Without confusion”, means our Lord Jesus Crist is not a mixture of humanity and divinity as when you mix blue paint with yellow to get green. “Without change” means that when Jesus takes on our humanity, He doesn’t stop being God. “Without division” means that Jesus is not a hybrid half man and half God, like the half man/ half animals of Greek mythology. “Without separation” means that in Jesus God and Man are organically united and not just good friends. And what does all that mean? It means that Jesus is the God/Man. which allows Jesus to show us what it means to be human, and what it means to be God in the way He dies as a human: by emptying Himself on the Cross.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1. 38) Mary puts her faith and trust in the Gospel of her Son, and lays her body on the line for it. Although the initiative for our salvation lies with God, it does not take place without Mary’s free consent. Another paradox! This makes Mary kind of important for Christians, doesn’t it? It sure does. But the role Mary plays is not simply that of a surrogate Mother, who rents out her womb, gives Birth to Jesus at Christmas, and then is told, “Thank you very much, you can go now…” When Jesus takes on flesh from the Virgin Mary His Mother, He is “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh”, in a dramatic reversal of the creation account where the man said of the woman, “This at last is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh! (Genesis 2.23.) Just as the first Adam was formed from virgin soil, so it is with the second Adam, Jesus Christ. The union between Jesus and Mary is earthy, it is fleshly. This is the flesh which was crucified and raised for us, and which Jesus now shares with us in the Eucharist, that we might become His Body in the world.
So, there is no salvation outside of the God/ Man Jesus Christ. But there is no Jesus without Mary, just as there is no Mary without Jesus. They belong together. “What God has united, let man not tear asunder.” (Matthew 19.6) So it is that Mary becomes the first human being to participate in the Divine Nature, the first human being to be saved and delivered from sin and death, on account of which she (and we!) are able to sing, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (Luke 1.46)
So how might we “flesh out” (if you pardon the pun) Mary’s role in our salvation? As in all things theological we turn in the Scripture, where in the Book of Genesis God addresses the serpent (a.k.a. “the tempter” “the devil, “and “the father of lies”) who tricked the woman into eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3. 15)
Reading this passage in light of the Gospel, we understand who and what is being talked about here. Mary is “the woman” whose “seed” Jesus Christ, will on the cross destroy the power of Satan, sin, and death. Mary therefore is the “new Eve,” whose obedience undoes the disobedience of the ‘first Eve’, and therefore becomes our Mother, because the name “Eve” means “mother of all living” (Genesis 2.20) which is us!
The angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that the child she was carrying was to be named Jesus recalls the story in the Book of Exodus where God spoke to Moses from within the burning bush, revealing His Holy Presence and His Holy Name. (Exodus 3.1-4) Moses beheld the burning bush, which though on fire, was not consumed. Another mystery and another paradox, that points us to the womb of Mary, in which God caused the Fire of His Holy Presence and the Fire of His Holy Name to dwell. The fire burned within Mary, but it did not consume her. Mary is the Burning Bush. Our spiritual rebirth and renewal consists in our immersion in that same fire.
Some of you are perhaps may now be thinking that the preacher today has a funny way of reading the Scripture. Nothing could be further from the truth. My manner of reading the Scripture corresponds to how the Apostles, the Evangelists, and the Holy Elders in the ancient church read the Scripture, which was to see Christ, His Mother, and the Church, buried in the Scripture like “treasure buried in a field.” (Matthew 13.44)
One more treasure…
In our reading this morning from the Book of the Prophet Samuel, the Lord tells Nathan to tell King David, “ I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. (2 Samuel 7.6) The word tabernacle is an English rendition of the Hebrew word miskan, or “dwelling place.” Inside the tent of meeting was the ark of the covenant, which was the box containing the 10 commandments. On top of the ark, was a golden lid called the mercy seat, with two cherubim beaten out of the ends with wings outspread to cover the seat and creating the space in which Lord would appear and cause His glory to dwell.
When John writes in the Prologue to His Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” (John 1.14) he is recalling the tabernacle and the tent of meeting in the Book of Exodus. In other words, the mercy seat is no longer empty. God has filled the empty space and has taken His place on the mercy seat in the person of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Mary is for us the Ark of the Covenant, as it says in a hymn from the 6th century ancient which we just sang,
“How blest that Mother, in whose shrine
The world’s Creator, Lord Divine,
Whose hand contains the earth and sky
Once deigned, as in his ark, to lie.”
The God whom the universe could not contain chose to be contained within the body of the Virgin Mary. She held within her womb He who holds the universe, who thereby made that womb “more spacious than the heavens.” (Liturgy of St. Basil)
This explains why from the very beginning Mary has been loved, honoured, and venerated in the worship of the Church, why she is mentioned by name in both the Apostles and Nicene Creed, why parish churches, such as our own, bear her dedication, and why the church commemorates the major events of Mary’s life, including her conception (Dec 8), her birth (Sept 8), and her death (Aug 15) showing us that the story of Mary’s life is the story of our life in the Church. Mary is for us not the great exception. She is for us the great example, the first and prototypical Christian. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary making her the Bearer and Birthgiver of the Eternal Word of God, so it is that the Holy Spirit overshadows us and makes us bearers and birthgivers of that same Word in our souls. Mary reveals to us the mystery and meaning of our salvation, which is a communion and participation in the life of Her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Those who love, bless, honour and magnify the Lord cannot help and will never tire of honoring, loving, blessing, and magnifying His Mother, whom God has magnified, thus fulfilling the prophetic word,
“Behold from hence-forth now all generations will called me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1. 48).
The Lord has done great things for Mary. The Lord has done great things for me. And Holy is the Name of Jesus. And as we enter this last week of preparation for Christmas which we will celebrate in isolation from one another, we find in Mary an ever-present companion in faith and in prayer, who guides us to the place where Christ is born. Amen.