A sermon offered, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 4B, were 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Romans 16:25-27; and Luke 1:26-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
The Episcopal Church is a church of refugees. The majority of Episcopalians were not born into this faith tradition; we came from somewhere else. We are a denomination which attracts refugees from other faith communities, those who’ve had a negative experience somewhere else, or those who can’t stay in their childhood churches because of life circumstances. We often find in our congregations those who were reared in the Roman Catholic tradition but have left that fold because they couldn’t accept the Roman church’s teaching about birth control or abortion, or about the ministry of women in the church, or the several other matters on which we differ with Rome. We also find in Episcopal Church congregations former Roman Catholics who married protestants of one type or another who were unwilling to become Roman Catholic, so we are the church of the marital compromise.
As one of my seminary professors observed, “As long as Methodists keep marrying Roman Catholics, there will be an Episcopal Church.”
I bring this up because today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus on the Virgin Mary in our gospel readings and whenever I talk with Roman Catholics who are interested in joining our branch of the catholic faith, the subject of Mary always comes up. Do we Episcopalians and other Anglicans revere and venerate the Blessed Virgin in the same way the Church of Rome does? When we consider our Advent 4 gospels, it would certainly seem that we do.
In each of the three years of the Lectionary Cycle, we hear a story about Mary and her pregnancy.
In Year A of the Lectionary (last year) we heard of Joseph’s dream in which an angel says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that Jospeh “took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
In Year B (this year) we hear, as we just have, the story of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary.
In Year C we will hear of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth who is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaim[s] with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,’” to which Mary replies by singing her famous song of liberation, the Magnificat, which we recited this morning as our Gradual.
So each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we consider Christ’s Blessed Mother and contemplate how she is a model for all Christians. But do we revere this holy woman in the same way as the Roman Catholic tradition. The answer is a fairly resounding, “No.”
There are at least two important medieval doctrines about Mary that the Roman tradition holds but that the Anglican tradition generally rejects, although there are Anglicans who adhere to them. (That’s the thing about being an Anglican. It’s practically impossible to say that there are universally accept doctrines or universally rejected doctrines; ours is such a large tent that nearly every variety of Christian belief has found a home under it. But these two doctrines about Mary are pretty generally not the Anglican norm.)
The first is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” Most non-Roman Catholics think this refers to Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not. It is, instead, the belief that Mary was conceived by her mother (whom tradition names Anne) and her father (whom tradition names Joachim) without the stain of Original Sin. Although found in the writings of some medieval theologians, particularly among the Franciscans, it was rejected by others, notably Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, however, long after the Reformation, it was made dogma in the Roman tradition. It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX decreed “that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, . . . was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin,” and enjoined this belief upon all members of the Roman church. (Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854) While some Anglicans may have accepted this, it is not and never has been a part of official Anglican or Episcopal doctrine.
The point of the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” is to set Mary apart from all other women (and men, for that matter) as a holier and more appropriate “vessel” for the incarnation of the Son of God. We may profess, as we do in one of our eucharistic prayers (Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer – 1979, page 370) that, “in the fullness of time [God] sent [God’s] only Son, born of a woman,” but this doctrine declares that she was a woman like no other. Anglican theology, on the other hand, would hold that that turns the whole importance of Mary upside-down; it is precisely because Mary is like other women that her motherhood of Jesus is to be celebrated.
The second of these doctrines about Mary is that of her “perpetual virginity.” Although this idea has been around since the very beginnings of the church, and probably more Anglicans would hold this belief than would accept the “immaculate conception” idea, I believe most Episcopalians would agree with the reformer John Calvin rejected as “unfounded and altogether absurd” the idea that Mary had made a vow or practice of perpetual virginity. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he wrote: “She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God.” (Commentary on Luke 1:34, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1) On the basis of the clear evidence of Scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters, Calvin came to the obvious conclusion that Mary had other children. As the 20th Century Anglican New Testament scholar, Canon Leon Morris put it, the “most natural interpretation is that [the un-named ‘brothers of the Lord’] were the children of Joseph and Mary.” (1 Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary, IVP: Leicester, 1958, page 133)
Again the point of this doctrine is to set Mary apart from all other human beings and, again, the Anglican and Episcopal tradition would argue that it is precisely her identity with other human beings, not her difference from us, that makes her so important. Any piety which makes Mary somehow different from you and me misses the point!
Mary is regularly hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. But what is the very first thing that Gabriel the Angel says to her? “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Before Mary accepts anything, before she hears another word, before she consents to God’s notion, she is greeted as “favored,” as one who enjoys the Presence of God. The Greek here is xaritoó which means “to be graced,” “to be blessed.” Mary is blessed even before she accepts her new role; she is blessed because she perceives and believes that God notices her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great things in store for her even before Gabriel tells her what those things may be!
This is important not because Mary is extraordinary or remarkable, not because she is immaculate or perpetually virginal. This is important for precisely the opposite reason. Mary is venerated not because she is an exception, but rather because she is an example of what can happen when anyone believes that God notices, favors, and blesses us, that God has great things in store for every one of us. You are important and so God notices, favors, and blesses you and, like Mary – like plain ol’ ordinary Mary – you may just change the world!
Some of you may now be sitting out there thinking that can’t possibly be the case. If so, by doing so you simply prove my point!
What happens next in this story? Luke specifically tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Again, if we look at the original Greek we get a much fuller understanding. The word translated here as “perplexed” is dietarachthé. Scholars disagree as to what the root of this adjective might be. Some believe it is diatasso which means “to be puzzled,” while others insist it is diatarasso which mean “to be agitated.”
And Mary’s response to all this puzzlement or agitation is to “ponder,” and here’s where the Greek really gets instructive. The original word is dielogidzeto, which comes from the word dialog. Mary carries on a dialog or debate with herself. Just like any of us, faced with that which puzzles or troubles us, she deliberates over it, facing doubts and uncertainties.
Mary is important not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. (She was even a refugee – after the birth of her Son, she and her family had to flee to Egypt for a time. Church of refugees that we are, Mary would fit right in!)
In the narthex of St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church in McKinney, Texas, is a painting of the Annunciation by contemporary artist John Collier. In it Mary is depicted as a young schoolgirl dressed in a blue and white parochial school uniform; she has dark hair pulled into a simple pony-tail; she is wearing white bobby socks and saddle shoes. The angel Gabriel approaches on the threshold of the front door of a modern tract home; it could be the door of any home here in Medina.
Collier’s painting, in my opinion, is brilliant because it emphasizes not merely Mary’s youth, but her utter lack of exceptionality! She is simply an ordinary person. Mary is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance and, thus, she is an example for us. She is like us . . . and we can be like her.
I am indebted to my friend and colleague the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie for reminding me of this observation by the 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
Each year on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary, not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. She is like you . . . and you are like her.
Please take a look again at the collect for this morning, the special prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s in the Prayer Book on page 212:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“By your daily visitation . . . . ” Every morning an angel of the Lord crosses the threshold of your life . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to see that angel. And every morning that angel speaks to you . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to hear that angel. And every morning that angel greets you saying, “Hail! You are graced by the Presence of God” . . . every morning, though most morning you (like me) probably fail to apprehend that greeting. And every morning the angels hold their breath waiting to hear what you (and I) might answer.
Mary is important not because she was conceived immaculately or remained a virgin perpetually. She is important because she is like us and we are like her. It Mary is exceptional, it is because unlike us she saw, and heard, and apprehended, and answered: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In her exceptionality she is exemplary; she is to be venerated and revered because she demonstrates that we, too, can and should see and hear and apprehend and answer, because this is the fullness of time when the Son of Man is to be begotten in us. Amen.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.