Micha 5:2-5a Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:38-45
The lectionary reading for today, the fourth Sunday of Advent is ostensibly about Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist and her meeting with Mary, the mother of Jesus, her cousin.
St Luke 1: 41-44. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
But the reading it is not about Elizabeth or John her son who leaps in her womb when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, it is about Mary, It is about Mary’s faith, her obedience in response to the angel’s word to her. For Elizabeth concludes the reading with these words. (verse 45. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”) It is about what Mary said when visited by the Angel Gabriel and her response to the Angel Gabriel’s words of promise to her. (verse 38. “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”)
In the figure of Mary, because of Mary’s faith, that the early church found an archetypal figure of the church in her. It viewed the first Eve, the mother of all the living as representing disobedient humankind, and Mary the mother of Jesus, the new Eve, representing the beginning of a new humanity, the church. She is seen as the archetypal mother of all the faithful and thus they called the church ‘the mother’ of us all.
In the Protestant tradition the figure of Mary has had a chequered history; ranging from a benign admiration to ferocious opposition. This came about through the way in which Mary has been portrayed in the Roman Catholic tradition. In some places in that tradition, particularly in a place like Italy, Mary is seen as someone bordering on a goddess. We hear phrases such as ‘Coredemptrix’, together with the Papal announcement, after the first Vatican Council in the mid 19th. century, concerning Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven as a dogma of the church. That is it became an article of the Catholic faith. These developments have confused and dismayed Protestants in their evaluation of Mary as she is portrayed in the New Testament. The handmaid of the Lord who hears and obeys the angelic promise.
But Mary was also the subject of a long running controversy in the early church, a dispute that was not resolved until the mid fifth century by the Council of Chalcedon 451. This dispute was between those who held that Mary through the gift and power of the Holy Spirit became the mother of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as we say in the Creed of Nicea, ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost born of the Virgin Mary’ and therefore as the decree of Chalcedon declared, Mary is rightfully called ‘theotokos’: but there were others who maintained that Mary was only the mother of the flesh of Christ and that the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity became simply associated with the human Jesus after the birth or was united with Jesus only by moral association. The spokesperson of this view was one named Nestorius. Nestorius’ opponent and upholder of what became accepted by the Council of Chalcedon was St Cyril of Alexandria, whom the Orthodox church call St Cyril the Theologian.. Cyril held that if Mary was not the mother of the divine Word of God, if she was not theotokos, God bearer, then our humanity is unredeemed precisely because in the incarnate Word our humanity was not truly united with God. If our humanity was and is not united with God then what Jesus Christ is and does, what he became has no relationship to who we are, who are conceived and born of our earthly mothers. St Cyril therefore insisted that Mary must be truly described as ‘theotokos’, which literally means ‘God bearer or as it is translated ‘Mother of God’.
What St Cyril saw so clearly, and the importance of Mary derives from this, he saw that Mary becomes the human created means whereby the One who is both God and man, Jesus Christ, shares our humanity from conception to death and thus is able to be the Mediator of all our relationship with God at every stage of our human development from conception to death. The reason why we baptise infants is that at every stage of our human development our Lord perfected our relationship with the Father and gives it to us through His Word and the sacrament of Baptism. For He is the one that traversed our way from conception and birth to death and beyond death, not for His own sake but for ours, and gives us by the Spirit to participate in His new humanity, he has created for us in His risen life
By his participation in who we are He gives us to participate in who He is, the eternal Son of the eternal Father. In Him our alienated humanity is brought into such a relationship with God that through his being born, as we are born, and living in obedience to the Father in our place, fulfilling the law for our sakes, and at the same time assuming the burden of our guilt, even to death upon the cross, we are given to participate in His righteousness and eternal life.
So the significance of Mary for us is that our fallen human nature is present with God. But present not in the form of sovereign creative humanity, but in the nature and form of one who can only receive. That is in Mary’s words in relation to the angel’s promise, “Be it unto me according to your word”.(v.38)
Thus our humanity through Mary’s faithful obedience is made one with the Son of God who fulfils once and for all, God’s purpose of reconciliation for humanity: all this through His unique identification of Himself with us: a unique union with us begun in Mary’s womb, Jesus conception by the Holy Spirit, for our eternal salvation. It is not Mary’s faith and obedience that saves us, but we are not saved without it. Mary’s “Be it unto me according to your word”, establishes in our flesh that miracle of grace whereby the Son of God assumes our fallen humanity and, from the moment of His conception, begins the process whereby He establishes a relationship with the Father for us at every stage of our life from birth to death.
In Mary’s womb there is re-created that relationship between God human beings that was destroyed forever by the fall in the garden of Eden. The One who is conceived in Mary’s flesh begins from the moment of conception the sanctification of our humanity, the re-establishment of our relationship with the Father. This journey will take Him from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond death to the right hand of the Father as our Great High Priest who ever intercedes for us and unites us with Himself by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. This is the substance of the miracle of Christmas about which the Angels sing at Christmas.
And at the beginning of this new work of God is the unique work of Mary whose faith and obedience enables her to become indeed the Mother of God. As such, in relationship to the work of her Son, she is the representative figure of all believers. With her response she defines the truth of our human being in relationship to the miracle of Christmas. We along with Mary can only receive the work of God for us in Jesus Christ as Mary received it from the angel. ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’
It is only in faith, like that of Marys’, that we can appropriate or receive this promise. Since God promises nothing more or less than the recreation of our fallen human nature in and through the birth, life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. This is a work of atonement and reconciliation that can only be undertaken by the One who was our Creator in the beginning, the eternal Word of God. In and through Mary’s faithful obedience to this promise we too may become children of God. We are offered this miracle today, by receiving, as Mary received the promise of the Angel word, “Be it unto me according to your word”, in this holy sacrament. “This is my body” “This is my Blood” given and shed for us. Amen
Dr. Gordon Watson.