Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Virgin Mary is Necessary to Salvation

It has long been a tradition at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge to transfer certain Feast Days of the Church Calendar for observance on Sundays, and that includes the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.  Since I became rector of St. Luke's in January 2013, and with the bishop's permission, we have maintained that tradition.

Below is my sermon from today for St. Mary the Virgin.  I decided to touch on why the Virgin Mary is necessary to our salvation, and how our salvation hinges on the consent of this poor Jewish peasant girl.

When I turn my thoughts to the Virgin Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, it never fails to inspire awe.  Truly, she deserves our veneration and deepest respect.

Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century.jpg

"Mary & Child Icon Sinai 13th century" by Unknown - Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: "Die Ikone". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a kid, I had virtually no idea who the Virgin Mary was. She was all but invisible.

In the Methodist church of my childhood, for example, I cannot recall a single time that St. Mary the virgin mother of our Lord Jesus Christ was the focus of a sermon or a Sunday school lesson. We used the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays, so she received a kind of ‘honorable mention’ in our worship. And every Advent we had the largest outdoor Nativity scene in town. But there was never any attempt to directly talk about her significance for the Christian faith and life. It was almost as though she didn’t exist.

The same thing was true at the boarding school I attended. Even though we had mandatory chapel services each school day for the four years I was there, the Virgin Mary never once showed up. In fact, I don’t recall hearing anything about any of the saints during those years.

That’s really sad. For in a world hungry for beauty, truth, moral integrity, and spiritual transformation, the saints provide concrete examples of what it looks like for one’s very being to radiate the love and mercy of God. They serve as role models that can inspire all of us to obedience and faithful discipleship.

Of all of the saints of God, that is particularly true of the blessed Virgin Mary. If we were to name some of the qualities that set her apart as special and unique, we could cite things like prayerfulness, humility, joyful submission to the will and word of God, and absolute loyalty and devotion to Jesus.

It’s precisely because of these qualities that Christians have honored Mary going all the way back to the earliest days of the Church.

And Holy Scripture celebrates the special place of Mary in the story of the Christian faith. 

Both St. Matthew and St. Luke testify to the Church’s conviction that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. The Gospels also tell us that Mary - along with many other women - played a vital role in meeting Jesus’ needs during his earthly ministry. On that dark day at Calvary, as Jesus died in agony on the cross forsaken by most of the male disciples, Mary was there keeping agonizing watch over her precious child. 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, obedience, courage, and perseverance.

We also know from St. Luke that Mary was the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan to bring Jesus into the world.

Think for a moment of other biblical stories where God calls somebody (usually a man) to do a great work. Typically, the man offers one of the following responses to God:

“I’m not smart enough!”

“I don’t have a good speaking voice!”

“I’m just a boy, I can’t handle this!”

“I’m not worthy!”

Time and time again, God gets an earful of excuses and false humility.

By contrast, how does the teenage, unwed, virgin Mary respond to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah, the Savior of the world?

First, overcome with awe and wonder, she asks a question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answers her question, telling her that God’s power will overshadow her and that with God, all things are possible.

And so how does Mary respond? Does she try to pawn the offer off on to somebody else? Does she complain about how unworthy she is, or how afraid this makes her feel, or how this is something she’s simply too young to handle?

No. Instead, Mary responds with some of the most memorable words in all of Holy Scripture:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Without further questions, without bargaining, and with tremendous courage, Mary voluntarily and completely submits herself to God’s will. It’s an act of courage that forever stands as a supreme example of what it means to be faithful and obedient to God.

Let’s pause for a moment and imagine what would have happened if Mary had said “no” to God’s plan for salvation through Jesus. What if her fears about what her fiancé Joseph and everybody else would think about an unmarried young woman getting pregnant had determined her response? What if Mary had refused to cooperate with God?

Let’s be clear: if Mary had said “no,” then Jesus would never have been born. And if Jesus was never born, if the Second Person of the Trinity had never become fully human, then he could never have died on the cross and been raised from dead. And if the death and resurrection of Jesus had never happened, then we would still be dead in our sins with no hope for life beyond the grave.

Without the Virgin Mary, there is no Jesus. That means the Virgin Mary is necessary to salvation. That’s how critically important her consent to God’s plan was.

Of course, someone might object and say, “Oh sure, Mary could have said ‘no,’ but then God would have found somebody else to bring Jesus into the world.”

But that completely misses the point about the awesome mystery at work here!

The God we meet in the Bible doesn’t force salvation on anybody. Yes, God always makes the first move. But God also respects our free will by allowing us to respond without coercion.

Just as God chose the people of Israel, God chose Mary. God chose a young girl who was an absolute nobody in her society to conceive and give birth to the Lord of all creation. And it was all contingent on Mary’s consent. 

Just imagine: the future destiny of the world hung in the balance between the simple “yes” or “no” of a poor Jewish peasant girl!

If Mary had said “no,” that one little word would have slammed the door shut on the world’s hope for salvation. But thanks be to God, Mary said “yes.” And by saying “yes,” Mary rightfully deserves our veneration and our highest respect.

The 19th Century Episcopal priest William Porcher DuBose put it well when he wrote:

“Christ was born not merely out of the womb but of the faith and obedience of his Virgin Mother.”

In the face of a life-shattering proposal that would forever alter the course of world history, Mary believed God. Even though she couldn’t even begin to understand how all of this would work out, she trusted that God would take care of her. She trusted that God would work wonders through her son. By trusting God, Mary put her life and the life of her unborn child into God’s hands in a way that said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Words fail to express the great mystery God has wrought through this willing servant. For in the Virgin Mary’s womb, God came into union with humanity, making it possible for our sins and infirmities to be taken into the Divine Life for healing. And so she who was a little lower than the angels has been exalted far above all principalities and powers ever to make intercession for us. She is the victorious leader of all who strive for holiness of life.

And so it is right, and a good and joyful thing, that we should give thanks and show the deepest respect for the Virgin Mary, whose willingness to conceive and give birth to Jesus made the Incarnation and our salvation possible.