Mary the Birthgiver of God
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Sunday Before the Nativity
December 24, 2017
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, Our Lord and Our Redeemer. Amen.
The Christmas story we celebrate this morning will soon culminate in the Nativity, and in the final moments of our preparation for this wondrous event, Mary accepts for us her central role. In return, nightly throughout the world, as part of the Church’s daily Vespers service, thousands of voices recall the beauty of Mary’s song, by reciting it as prayer in praise of God. The words to the song are perhaps the loveliest words ever spoken by a human being, and they are imbued with the extraordinary radiance of the woman who speaks them. “My soul glorifies the Lord,” Mary says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
Mary cannot contain her joy. The restoration of humanity’s original nature began with an angel sent by God to a virgin who was to tabernacle a divine child. The 8th century English monk Bede put it this way: “Because death made its entrance” into the created order through a woman “who was deceived by the spirit of pride,” “it was fitting that life should return” through a woman made remarkable by her spirit of humility. Bede’s poetry captures the experience of divine symmetry, regardless of gender appointment, where expressions of humility follow in exact proportion those of pride.
The angel Gabriel, whose name means “strength of God,” called Mary “favored one.” “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel said, “for you have found favor with God.” Gabriel’s message for Mary is, to say the least, unexpected and barely imaginable: a lot of information for anyone to take in. First, Mary is told that she will conceive in her womb and give birth to a son, and she will name him Jesus. Then Mary learns that the child will be named for his great healing power, and the world will call him the Son of God. Her son shall inherit the throne of his distant relation, David. Finally, in contrast to all the previous Davidic kings, who in one way or another failed to keep their promises to God, 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. Perhaps Mary understands that the angel speaks of the Messiah, but the magnificence of which she hears is too immense for immediate comprehension. “How will this be,” Mary asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Mary is betrothed to Joseph; their marriage is not consummated, yet the angel has said, “you shall conceive in your womb.” Now Gabriel explains how this will happen: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Of this incredible pronouncement, and its description of the divine/human encounter, Mary is completely trusting. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says, “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
The occasion for Mary’s song is a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. The angel has told Mary that Elizabeth “is going to have a child in her old age” and that “no word from God will ever fail.” Mary hurries off on a three day journey to see Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears her greeting, “the baby leaped 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 knows without being told that Mary is carrying the Son of God in her womb, but she has difficulty believing that the Mother of God would humble herself by visiting. In her answering song, Mary says, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.”
We encounter in this visitation an amazing confluence of events: John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb confirming the presence of the Messiah in Mary’s; Mary the Birthgiver of God conceiving the antitype whose life and death fulfills all the law and the prophets; Mary the unwedded Bride, honored for delivering Eve from tears and reviving Adam from his fall; and Mary the heavenly ladder, by which God descends to earth. As our creed recites:
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 emphatic emphasis on the virgin birth is not an element extraneous to the Christian story; it is central to our understanding of divine agency. We can be certain, had Christ not been born of a virgin, he would not have been born; instead, all creation would have remained enslaved to death and destruction. Mary was poor and humble and her holiness was so great that she was capable of carrying the God- Man in her womb. No other woman in the history of the world could have taken her place; and all three persons of the Trinity had a hand in her accomplishment: she was chosen by God the Father, overshadowed by God the Spirit, and dwelt in by God the Son.
Remarkably, the bible’s narrative gives us no instances of Mary disclosing this greatness to anyone; rather, Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Recognition of her unique role in the world’s redemption fell upon the lowly shepherds and the wise Chaldeans. 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,” and rejoiced. When the Wisdom seekers arrived at the end of a star’s light, and approached the Mother and Child, 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 the mother of the never-setting Star!”[i]
Avoiding all glory for herself, Mary a true servant of the Lord, raised and cared for her son. The towns people of Nazareth respected her, and her son was allowed to preach, at an early aage, in the synagogue. They were honored guests at the Cana Wedding. On Good Friday, as Jesus was led to the cross and executed, Mary followed. The disciple John would write, “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 God’s royal service. Let us model our devotion on hers, and listening to Jesus, take her into the manger of our heart.
And all the people said, Amen.
[i] Romanus the Melodist, 6th Akathist to the Theotokos