And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,
and she exclaimed with a loud cry,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
In the prayers we say in the lighting of the Advent wreath, we have been remembering different preparation for the coming of Christ. On the 1st Sunday in Advent we remembered the desire of all people for a Saviour, on the 2nd we remembered the Old Testament prophets who pointed the way, on the 3rd we remembered the witness of John the Baptist, and this morning, on the 4th Sunday, as get closer to celebrating the birth, we remember the witness of the Virgin Mary. In our Gospel this morning [St Luke 1:39-45], Mary is at the start of her pregnancy.
For Protestants, the role and place of Mary in Salvation history has been held with a certain ambivalence or even a minimizing of her place, out a reaction against a perceived over-attention given to her by the late Medieval Western Church. There was and is among many a concern with her role which can seem to be infringing upon the salvation that is offered by Christ alone. There was and is among many a concern about seeking her intercession in prayers such as the Hail Mary prayer, which includes the line – pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. How can we be certain that she hears our prayers? And given that we know from the Bible that The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit do hear our prayers, why would we go elsewhere?
For Anglicans, who see themselves as both catholic and reformed, there has also been some ambivalence, and, in a typically Anglican way, a variety of practice, depending on one’s churchmanship. If one is more evangelical or low church, one avoids Marion devotion; if one is more catholic or high church, Marion devotions are sometimes practiced – holding her up as an example, seeking her intercession in prayer, using the Rosary or the Angelus, devotional practices based upon the Hail Mary prayer, as Roman Catholics do, and going on pilgrimage to Walsingham. Each to his or her own. It is not a matter that the Church of England has made a final declaration on as something not to be done or as something to be encouraged. Perhaps surprisingly, there is nothing in the 39 Articles about Mary or on the intercession of the saints. Through the centuries we have allowed and held the two sides together, from the one side, a kind of warning against excessive attention to Mary, from the other, a warning against undervaluing her role…
The role of Mary in the Western Church grew in the late middle ages at the same time as there was greater attention given to the humanity of Christ. One can see this change in art. In the early depictions in Christian art, in the Romanesque style, Mary is a stately figure of the seat of Wisdom, and the Christ child on her lap is like a little man, fully formed already from childhood. In the Gothic period which followed, we see Mary looking more womanly, more curvy, holding the Christ child on her hip, sometimes breast-feading him, and Jesus really finally looks like a real infant. Something powerful has happened in the mind of the Church. Rather than focusing on the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of his humanity, it has recovered the reality of Christ as fully God and fully human – one who grows in wisdom and stature. And with that, there is a growing reflection on the place of Mary as a real flesh and blood person. You could say it led to, or was part of a trend, of a growing exaltation of the significance of every human being – the importance of the individual, a teaching which has had profound effects on Western consciousness.
What does our Gospel this morning [St Luke 1:39-45] tell us about the place of Mary? Our reading this morning begins just after Luke’s account of the coming of Gabriel to Mary to announce God’s plan that she should be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son, and of Mary’s gracious reply. In that encounter, Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth, her relative or cousin, in her old age has conceived a son and is six months pregnant.
Here is how today’s Gospel begins:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Why did she go with haste? She goes away from her village to help her ‘relative’ who will soon give birth. Was her haste in part out of wanting to have some kind of confirmation of the wonder that has happened to her, with the angel’s appearance and gracious words? If it is true for Elizabeth, then maybe it is also true for her?
In this act of not hesitating Mary becomes an example in the tradition of love expressed as zeal. Dante uses this example of Mary going in haste in order to encourage the slothful in spirit to follow love without delay. [Purgatorio, Canto 18, vs 100]
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
For Protestants, who worry about exalting Mary, but who also hold to the supreme importance of the Word of God – here it is – Elizabeth speaks, because she is filled with the Holy Spirit – and what does the Bible say that Elizabeth said by that Holy Spirit? – Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. These are the words used in the Hail Mary prayer. Just after today’s Gospel, Mary responding to Elizabeth says, among other things, by the same Holy Spirit, all generations shall call me blessed. Mary knows something of the significance of her place and yet is not destroyed by that knowledge – and thus in part the belief in the purity of her heart and the greatness of her soul – pride has no place.
And why is this granted to me [says Elizabeth] that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
No one in history had ever been asked to believe that by the Holy Spirit and without a man she would bring forth a son, nor will anyone ever again be asked to believe such a thing. And yet, here Elizabeth confirms that Mary believed it – blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.
Here are some beautiful words from an Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras:
The Theotokos (the Mother of God) did not simply “lend” her biological functions to God the Word, because a mother does not “lend” her body to her child, but she builds up his existence with her flesh and her blood just as she forms the “soul” of her child with her nursing, speech, caressing, affection. The Church insists that the Son and Word of God did not simply assume flesh … Christ assumed human nature with the whole of the energies of body and soul which go to make it up and express it. And the symbol of the Theotokos does not stop at constructing the flesh of Christ, but extends even to what we could call formation of his soul, of his human psychology, since the mother is the source and ground for the articulation of the first mental experiences, of the first awareness, of the first baby-talk, of the progressive entry of the child into the world of names and symbols, the world of people.
To be Mother of God, then, the Virgin Mary identified in her existence the life of the created with the life of the uncreated; she united in her own life the creation with its Creator. And so every creature, the entire creation of God, finds in her person the gate of “true life”, the entrance to the fulness of the existential possibilities….
[Mary] is the new Eve who … [sums up in herself]… nature, not in that autonomy contrary to nature and in death [when nature turns away from its Creator it destroys itself], but in that participation in the Divinity which transcends nature and in the realization of eternal life [when we turn to God in obedience, we know life, and that eternally]. Because her own will restores the existential “end” and purpose of creation generally, she gives meaning and hope to the “eager longing of creation.” [that St Paul talks about in Romans 8]Christos Yannaros, Elements of Faith, On the Theotokos
When it comes to Mary’s place in our thinking and devotion, I think most Anglicans could agree on this:
- Mary is pre-eminent among the saints.
- She was chosen by God among all women in all times to be the mother of Jesus. Next to Jesus, Mary plays a part more important than any other man or women ever has or ever will play in our salvation.
- She responded in perfect obedience to God’s calling – let it be according to your will – undoing the disobedience of Eve and Adam.
- She nurtured, and was surely also nurtured by, the perfect Son of God in the flesh for longer than any other person on earth – she was with him as an infant, in his childhood, in his early adult life, we don’t know when he left home – that fact in itself is remarkable, if you think about it.
- She is the supreme example of purity of heart and of humility and also of magnanimity – of greatness of soul – she knew something of the significance of what she was being called to do.
- As she brings to birth Christ in her body, she becomes a figure of the Church, who, through baptism and faith, through the nurturing of souls by Word and Sacrament, brings to birth Christ in the hearts of her faithful people.
I don’t know fully why, but when I think about Mary and her place in salvation history, in bringing forth Jesus Christ, I do find comfort, and experience a sort of purity and holiness that flows from thinking on her example. Maybe some of you know this too.
We are told this morning of the joy of John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth from the encounter with Mary and Christ who is in her womb – is it Mary’s voice or the presence of the Son of God, or both, that makes him leap for joy. We can imagine from the words and embrace of her cousin, Elizabeth’s joy both at Mary’s arrival to help her and that she brings with her, her Lord, taking flesh that he might be among us.
This morning I hope your joy has been stirred up in this reflection. And I hope that joy is the consequence of your Christmas celebrations this year. That same joy can be made more complete this morning, as we now prepare our hearts through repentance and faith to receive very soon Christ afresh in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood given for us.