MARY THE BIRTHGIVER OF GOD
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Micah 5:2-5; Ps 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-56.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, Our Lord and Our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is one of my very favorite days in the church year; for on the fourth Sunday in Advent, as we prepare for the Nativity and anticipate its wondrous occurrence, we behold Mary and her expression of our Christian faith. The song we know as the Magnificant, or Canticle of Mary, sung every night throughout the world as part of the Church’s Vespers service, has perhaps the loveliest lyrics of any song, suffused, as they are, with the extraordinary radiance of the woman who speaks them. ““My soul magnifies the Lord,” sings Mary, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is His name!” Today the lowliness of Mary is set beside the lowliness of Bethlehem, said by Micah to be “small among the clans of Judah, out of whom will come …one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times, whose greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” When “she who is in labor bears a son…he will be our peace.” The “proud will be scattered” “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” “and the humble will be lifted up…for God has come to the aid of Israel, the chosen servant, remembering the promise of mercy.”
Mary’s joy cannot be contained. In what the 8th century English monk Bede called “a fitting beginning for human restoration,” an angel was sent by God to a virgin who was to tabernacle a divine child. “Because death made its entrance” into the created order through a woman “who was deceived by the spirit of pride,” “it was fitting,” Bede says, “that life should return” through a woman made remarkable by her spirit of humility.
The angel Gabriel, whose name means “strength of God,” has called Mary “blessed among women.” “Do not be afraid, Mary,” he has said, “You have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (See Luke 26-38.)
Gabriel gives Mary a lot of information to take in, especially considering that she wasn’t expecting any of it! First, Gabriel tells Mary that God favors her. Next he tells her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son, and she will name him Jesus. Then Mary learns that the greatness of her child will in his time cause the world to declare him the Son of God, “and the Lord God shall give him the throne of his father David.” Last, in contrast to all the previous Davidic kings, who have failed in one way or another to keep their promise to God, Mary is told her Son, who she will name Jesus, will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom shall be none end.”
The name Jesus is Greek for Joshua, which means the Lord saves. Maybe in her heart Mary understands that the angel speaks of the Messiah; perhaps she remembers hearing a description of the Messiah, but we can be sure the magnificence of which she hears is too vast for comprehension. “How will this be,” Mary asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Betrothed to Joseph, their marriage is not consummated, yet the angel has said, “you shall conceive in your womb.” Now he gives her the details: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” And Mary is completely accepting of this incredible pronouncement. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” The blessings Mary feels fill her heart.
She is blessed for her Divine Motherhood; she is blessed for believing in God’s promises; her womb is blessed; she is blessed with joy and trust, and she is blessed because she is not ashamed. Mary’s sings as she goes from Nazareth, in Galilee, to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who lives in the hill country of Judah. Mary has been told by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth “is going to have a child in her old age” and that “no word from God will ever fail.” Mary hurries off to see Elizabeth. Her travel would not have been easy: days of walking and climbing on dirt and sand and rocks, sore and thirsty and hungry, hot from the sun during the day and chilly at night. When Mary arrives and Elizabeth hears her greeting, “the baby leaped with joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.” Elizabeth has been hopeful; she has held on to her hope, and her hope is rewarded. Elizabeth knows without being told that Mary is carrying the Messiah, the Deliverer, in her womb. And as she has greeted Mary, John has greeted Jesus, preparing for him the way, even from the womb. When Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her,” she is speaking for all the women of Israel, who have held fast to their hope.
A truly remarkable sequence of events unfolds in this story! John the Forerunner in Elizabeth’s womb confirming the presence of the Son of God in Mary’s! The aged Elizabeth shouting out in the Spirit when she sees the young Mary approach. The One True God who who has created the cosmos out of nothing with us in the tent of an embryo and then a fetus in the womb of Mary the Birthgiver! No wonder that Mary the unwedded Bride will be forever honored for delivering her Divine child.
In his 6th Akathist to the Theotokos, Romanus the Melodist wrote, An Archangel was sent from Heaven to say to the Mother of God: Rejoice!
And seeing Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:
Rejoice, thou through whom joy will flash forth!
Rejoice, thou through whom the curse will cease!
Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam!
Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!
Rejoice, thou who art the King’s throne!
Rejoice, thou who bearest him who bears all!
Rejoice, womb of divine incarnation!
Rejoice, thou through whom creation becomes new!
Rejoice, thou through whom the Creator becomes a babe!
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down!
Rejoice, unwedded Bride!
A glorious and wondrous event such as this reminds us always to be cautions about how we use the word “belief.” We are to believe in the promises of God; we are to believe in the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. The Nicene Creed completes the Apostle’s Creed; when we recite its weighty words, let us know that the creed of our faith is all the belief a Christian can bear. Everything else that the world calls belief is nothing compared to the Creed; all else is opinion or hypothesis. So it is fitting, on the last Sunday before Christmas, for us to anticipate with Mary the birth of the child Jesus, and to contemplate his mother’s virginity.
Here is what the creed says:
For us and our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
The creed’s strong statement emphasizes that the virgin birth is not an element extraneous to what we believe; it is central to our understanding of Divine agency. We can be certain, I think, that had Christ not been born of a virgin, he would not have been born; instead, when we were born, we would have been under sentence of death, the death his death and resurrection overturned. We have been pardoned, we who were captive have been set free, we, too, like Mary, are blessed.
Mary was poor and humble, yet her holiness was so great that she was capable of carrying the God Man in her womb. This is not something that any other woman in the history of the world could have done in her place, and all three persons of the Trinity acted together – in the union of God – to make this happen. Mary was chosen by God the Father, descended upon by God the Spirit, and dwelt in by God the Son. And nowhere in Scripture do we hear of her disclosing this greatness to anyone; rather, Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)
When “the shepherds heard Angels caroling Christ’s incarnate Presence, and running like sheep to their shepherd, they beheld him as an innocent Lamb fed at Mary’s breast, they sang to her:
Rejoice, mother of the Lamb and the Shepherd!
Rejoice, fold of spiritual sheep!
Rejoice, defense against invisible enemies!
Rejoice, key to the gates of Paradise!
Rejoice, for the things of Heaven rejoice with the earth!
Rejoice, for the things of earth join chorus with the Heavens!
Rejoice, unwedded Bride!
When the wise Chaldeans arrived at the end of a star’s light, and approached the Mother and Child, Romanus the Melodist tells us they saw “in the hands of the Virgin Him who with his hand made man. And knowing Him to be the Lord although he had taken the form of a servant, they hastened to worship Him with their gifts and cried to her who is blessed:
Rejoice, mother of the never-setting Star!
Rejoice, thou who didst enlighten the initiates of the Trinity!
Rejoice, thou who did banish from power the inhuman tyrant!
Rejoice, thou who has shown us Christ as the Lord and Lover of men!
Rejoice, unwedded Bride!
Avoiding all glory for herself, Mary, full of grace, a true servant of the Lord, raised and cared for her son. The townspeople of Nazareth respected her, and her son was allowed to preach in the synagogue. They were honored guests at the Cana Wedding.
The church has long held, as did John Wesley, that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus, and that Biblical mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters refers to his extended family, not to his birth family. This explains why Jesus, while on the cross, designates John to care for Mary during her remaining earthly life. As John relates, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:25-27).
Mary, for her entire life, and even to this day, devoted herself to the service of our Lord. Let us recall her devotion to be a model for ours. As Bede exhorts us, “Let us subject all the members of our body in service to Christ, and let us direct the whole gaze of our mind to the fulfillment of his will.” For God strengthens us, as he did Mary, “according to the gospel and the proclamation of his Son, and according to the revelation of the mystery” of our salvation “that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, to bring about the obedience of faith.”