Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mother Mary

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
RCL, Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Today our Advent journey turns our attention towards the coming Nativity of our Lord. The 4th Sunday of Advent always looks forward to Christmas. And it highlights the importance of Jesus’ family.

Today’s gospel reading, for instance, portrays Joseph as the very model of faithfulness. In a day and age when engagement to a pregnant girl would have been unthinkable, Joseph remains faithful to Mary and trusts God’s purpose. Matthew portrays Joseph “as a man of deep devotion, open to mystical experiences, and as a man of compassion, who accepted his God-given responsibility with gentleness and humility.”[1] And so Joseph is a model Christian saint who embodies obedience to God’s will.

Most Christians have no problem acknowledging all of this about Joseph. But if we turn to Mary, anxiety levels may rise – particularly among Protestants – and there may be attempts to downplay her significance. It’s a true irony that the one time of the year when most Christians even acknowledge her existence, Mary is often regarded as merely the biological mother of Jesus, and thus not worthy of greater attention than any other faithful servant of God. It’s Jesus alone, we’re told, not Mary, who’s worthy of special devotion.

On the opposite pole from Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church has made very generous claims about Mary’s role in the economy of our salvation. In addition to the early Church’s understanding that Mary gave birth to a person who was fully human and fully divine, official Roman Catholic teachings about Mary includes the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of the Glorious Assumption. The Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, and thus was able to give birth to a sinless son. And the Assumption says that Mary did not die, but, like the Old Testament prophet Elijah, was taken up into heaven. Both dogmas are meant to highlight the unique and special character of Mary.

Before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II came close to naming Mary as Corredemptrix or co-redeemer with Jesus. As I recall, even many conservative Catholics worried that such a move would usurp the unique identity and role of Jesus Christ.

So in Western Christianity we have two dominant approaches to Mary: one represented by the Protestant traditions and one in the Roman Catholic tradition. And they couldn’t be further apart.

If Protestantism says almost nothing about Mary, making her virtually invisible and effectively irrelevant to Christian faith, and if Roman Catholicism says a whole lot, what can we say as heirs of the Anglican tradition? What may we Episcopalians believe about Mary?

As part of a reformed catholic tradition, I believe that we can embrace three points about Mary as positive reinforcements for our faith that Jesus Christ is the unique incarnation of God. And each of them revolves around Mary’s motherhood.

1. Mary is the Mother of the Saints.
2. Mary is the Mother of God.
3. Mary is the Mother of the Church.

Let’s start with Mary as the Mother of the Saints. The primary warrant here is scripture. When we look at the New Testament, we see that since the dawn of Christianity, Mary has been honored for playing a unique role in the salvation of the world. Both Matthew and Luke testify that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus. The gospels also tell us that Mary, in the company of many other women, played a vital supporting role in Jesus’ ministry. Mary helped meet needs for food, clothing, and shelter, making it possible for Jesus and his disciples to spread the good news of the coming kingdom of God. When the men abandoned Jesus, Mary the faithful mother and disciple was still there, standing at the foot of the cross while her son died in agony. Mary was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit transformed fearful disciples into bold witnesses to the resurrection. From beginning to end, Mary was there bearing witness to the virtues of faithfulness and perseverance.

But it’s Luke’s gospel that records the very moment when Mary became the Mother of the Saints. In response to the angel Gabriel, Mary was the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan to become incarnate as a human being in Jesus. Her words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) express the heart and soul of what it means to be a saint of God, a person who submits his or her will unreservedly to God’s will.

The 19th Century Episcopal theologian William Porcher DuBose puts it like this: “Christ was born not merely out of the womb, but out of the faith and obedience of his Virgin Mother.”[2] The biblical witness to Mary’s faith and obedience provides ample warrant for honoring her as the Mother of the Saints.

But Mary is more than that. According to the faith of the Church, Mary is also the Mother of God. The primary warrant here is tradition, and specifically the ecumenical councils of the early Church. Second only to Holy Scripture, the ecumenical councils express the basic teachings of the Christian faith embraced by the Anglican tradition. In the 4th Century, two of these councils – Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD) – hammered out the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday. Our Prayer Book says that we privilege the Nicene Creed as “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877]. We need nothing more, but also nothing less, to get the basic gist of the Christian story. And so it’s significant that next to Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the only other person named in the Creed is the Virgin Mary.

If, as one theologian puts it, “Pilate stands for the world that rejects the claims of God and kills God’s messenger who bodily bears that claim,” then “Mary stands for the world that accepts the claim of God and gives birth to the embodiment of God’s presence in Jesus the Messiah.”[3] Without her consent to God’s plan, Jesus would never have been conceived or born. God’s plan for salvation would either have had to take a radically different form or been shipwrecked altogether. And so the Nicene Creed rightly highlights Mary’s essential role in the Incarnation of our Lord and thus in the salvation of the world.

In addition to the Nicene Creed, the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431 AD) expresses the historic faith of the Church. According to this council, Mary is not just the mother of the man Jesus. Mary is the Mother of God, the Theotokos or Godbearer. In cooperation with God’s will, Mary’s will was the moral agent and her womb was the biological agent that made the Incarnation possible. For 9 months, Mary carried in her womb, not just a baby boy, but the Logos, the eternal Word of God, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity. Imagine: the very life of the one through whom all things were made (cf. Col. 1:16) grew in Mary’s womb. By affirming this awesome and sacred mystery, Ephesus affirmed what Christians had been praying about Mary since at least the early 4th Century.[4]

As the Mother of the Saints and the Mother of God, it stands to reason that Mary is also the Mother of the Church. By giving birth to the body of Christ, the God-Man, Mary also gives birth to the body of Christ, the Church. One theologian puts it like this: “Mary’s willing acceptance of her indispensable role in that chain of events which constituted the incarnation and the redemption which it brought about, was necessary for the nurture of the Lord and for the creation of the Church itself. So Mary is not only in the Church and of the Church, she is also prior to the Church, as is implied in her title, Mother of the Church.”[5] As the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan for salvation in Jesus, Mary is the mother of all Christians, of all persons who say “yes” to Jesus and ratify that “yes” through baptism into that body of Christ we call the Church.

And so, as Mother of the Saints, Mother of God, and Mother of the Church, it is right, and a good and joyful thing, that we should venerate Mary. Notice that I said “venerate” and not “worship.” Only God is worthy of worship. But just as we venerate the processional cross by bowing when it comes down the aisle, showing our deep respect for the One who died on the cross, it is fitting for us to venerate Mary, showing our deep respect for the woman whose willingness to conceive and give birth to Jesus made the Incarnation and our salvation possible.

So whatever you do, don’t worship Mary. But do respect your Mother. And just as Mary said “yes” to God’s plan to become incarnate in her womb, may we also consent to the Holy Spirit’s desire to overshadow our hearts, working silently to form within us the fullness of God’s redeemed and redeeming humanity, that we, too, may give birth to Christ.[6]

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 200.

[2] A DuBose Reader: Selections from the Writings of William Porcher DuBose, compiled by Donald S. Armentrout (University of the South, 1984), p. 3.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 159.

[4] Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 2003), p. 13.

[5] John Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (Willima B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 114.

[6] Cf. the prayer by Cheslyn Jones in John Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (William B. Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 159-160.

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