SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2011, THE SOLEMNITY OF THE FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD IN THE TEMPLE

This morning, because we are observing one of her feast days, I want to speak to you about the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of our Lord.  There is a richness and a deep mystery of the faith about her, and we should not neglect it.  It is also true – and how could it not be ? – that better to know the mother is better to know her son, and so this morning let us think about Mary.

All of us know that Mary occupies a very important place in the life and thought of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Churches.  Some might say – certainly many Anglicans – that her position there is somewhat exaggerated and theologically problematic.  At times she seems to be so exalted in liturgy and devotion and doctrine as to eclipse Our Lord.  And it is probably this that has caused our Protestant brothers and sisters virtually to ignore Mary – a fear that to exalt her detracts from Him.  And yet it is a truth of the Gospel that it was God who exalted Mary, the Virgin, not the Church.  And so correctly to understand her exaltation is to comprehend more fully the mystery of her Son.  She always points to Him.

Martin Luther and the early fathers of the Reformation understood this.  In his wonderful and robust language Luther tells us that Mary was the “factory” of God’s working as she bore and nourished him who was the Incarnate Word of God. Luther calls Mary the Queen of Heaven, chief among those who are saints of God.  John Calvin, too, recommended the Virgin to his followers as a supreme example of faith and the virtues of the Christian life.  Even Zwingli, who to many people seems to have diluted the Faith beyond recognition, retained the “Hail Mary” as a proper and right act of praise for the one who gave birth to the Lord.  And yet, for these three and for our forebears of the English Reformation, the place of Mary was cut to a bare minimum.  In time it was ignored and neglected, if not despised.

Again, it is easy to understand this.  In the Church of the Middle Ages the cult of Mary had in many ways gotten out of hand.  The piety and the theology of the medieval Church had given to Mary a place that did indeed rival that of Christ, and at this the Reformers were very justifiably distressed. The fact remains, however, and it is a fact both evangelical and dogmatic, that though we cannot have Mary without Christ, we do not have Christ without Mary.  In the history of the Redemption she was the one chosen to bear the Son of God, no one else.  Therefore, in the working of God with man, she occupies a unique and pre-eminent place.  Without him she, of course, is nothing, but in the economy of our salvation it was Mary, particularly and individually, who was chosen to be His entrance into the world.

Let’s look into this more deeply.  Over the centuries the Church has addressed Mary with many titles – names of honor and of love, names arising out of thinking and out of praying.  Of these, one of the oldest and most extraordinary is “Mother of God.” It’s an incredible phrase, isn’t it? An almost outrageous combination of words: Mother of God.  In the original Greek the word is Theotokos, the God-Bearer, the one who carried God in her womb, who suckled God at her breasts – the Mother of God.  In the development of the Church’s thought this is an intensely significant phrase and illustrates an essential fact about Our Lady: that Mary always points to Christ, that Mary always expresses and exemplifies the richness of the mystery of Christ.  And it does so because – you see – in the fifth century there was a group of men who abhorred this title for Our Lady and denied it.  What is interesting, though, is that in denying it, they ended up denying something essential about the Christ – His full humanity and divinity.  Mary, they said, was not the mother of God, could not be the mother of God, for he who had been born from her womb was not God.  To quote the ringleader of this group, a bishop named Nestorius, “I say that it was the flesh that was born of the Virgin Mary, not God the Word.  It is not right to say of God that He sucked milk or that God is two or three months old.  A born God, a dead God, a buried God I cannot adore.” But that is what the Church did say, and that is the God the Church does adore, and that is what Nestorius just couldn’t take – the full impact of the Incarnation.  Nestorius and his followers couldn’t stomach the outrage, the scandal, and the seeming absurdity that God could and did take upon Himself the entirety of the human condition.  That the Word of God was born of a woman and did die on a Cross was too much, and to deny all this they denied that Mary was the Mother of God.  But the Church decided – it had no choice – that “Mother of God” was proper and correct.  The Incarnation meant precisely what Nestorius could not take.  To reject that title for Mary was to reject the fullness of God’s enfleshment in Jesus, and upon that fullness does our redemption depend.  “Mother of God,” says St. John of Damascus, “this name contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation” – contains it because it points to the mystery of Christ.  It speaks not so much about the Mother, as about the Son who was born to that Mother. 

Icon of the Virgin and Child
Virgin ‘Hodegetria’ icon from the Stavronikita Monastery, Mount Athos.
This type of icon always features the Blessed Virgin pointing to her Son.
Mary, like all the saints, always points to Christ.  What we say about her and what she means to us is predicated upon what we believe about him.  In thinking, in praying, Mary must remain as she is content and blessed to be: the handmaid of the Lord, the Bearer of God, the one who displays her Son to us, and presents Christ to the world.  Mary points to her Son – without Him she is nothing. We cannot have Mary without Christ; we do not have Christ without Mary.

There is yet more richness still in the mystery of Mary.  It is a spiritual treasure that goes beyond the definitions of doctrine and penetrates into the Christian heart and soul.  It is something discovered mainly in meditation and prayer.  Throughout the centuries, Mary has been an example and a strength in the spiritual life of Christians.  The ways in which this has manifested itself have been various and many – some profitable, some questionable.  I would like to mention two this morning: Mary as an example, or, so to speak, an icon of two things: faith and hope.

She is first of all the example of faith.  Mary believed; she had faith.  St. Augustine tells us - and we should always remember this - “God who made you without your cooperation does not redeem you without your cooperation.” And this principle is as true of the drama of the Redemption as it is of each Christian’s personal spirituality.  Redemption is always a movement of response to God.  Humanity actively cooperates with God’s initial action.  God acts and man in faith responds .  .  .  or fails to respond.

The history of humanity itself is a history of God’s action and human response.  The history of Israel, God’s chosen, is a history of greater actions and greater responses.  And in Mary, a Jewish peasant girl, the yearning of humanity and the yearning of Israel to respond completely to the action of God – in Mary these two yearnings are joined and find their culmination.  In faith, Mary, woman and daughter of Israel, says “Yes.” In faith Mary replies, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Again, we cannot have Mary without Christ, but we do not have Christ without Mary, for Mary’s “Yes” to God, Mary’s faith makes her the first cooperator in the divine plan in which we are all called to cooperate.  She is the icon of faith in the completeness of that “Yes” uttered in response to God.  She is the image of faith, for the result of that response in her, and in us as well, is the bearing of Christ.

Our Lady is the example of faith also as Virgin.  This is a difficult thing to talk about today, when virginity seems something to chuckle at rather than to honor.  It is difficult to mention as well when the Virgin Birth of Jesus means to most people nothing more than a biological anomaly.  There is, though, something deeper signified by the virginity of Mary than biology or sexuality.  Indeed, the biological fact points to and is part of a spiritual state: the state of utter dependence upon and total dedication to God.  For Mary therefore, virginity is no negative thing – not a denial of the possibilities of life – but a positive affirmation of the possibilities of a new life.  In the birth from Mary the Virgin God’s new creation in Christ comes into being.  As the early Church had it, she is the New Eve, for she is the mother of Christ, the New Adam.  And therefore she is the mother of a new race of humanity: those who have been redeemed in Him.  Her virginity is as much a response to the initiative of God as her “Yes” – her “be it unto me according to thy word.”

And each of us is summoned to that same virginity of spirit which is hers.  We are summoned negatively: to put away from ourselves everything which distracts us and competes with the action of God.  We are so summoned positively: to open ourselves ultimately only to God.  This is what the spiritual life is all about: a growth in virginity of soul through faith, the faith which in us, as in her, makes the Virgin fruitful.

Our Lady is also the example of hope.  She is the image of our hope as Christians because she, like all the saints, makes manifest the real possibilities of faith and God’s grace.  In times of anguish and despair she provides the example of hope, for the sword has pierced her heart also.  In times of gladness, she makes known the fact that our hope is without bound, for it rests in nothing less than the infinity of God.  In her son the promises of God find fulfillment.  In her the promises of God for mankind are realized and come true.

We pray in a Collect for another of her feasts: “O God, who hast taken to thyself the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and this phrase echoes the pious belief of Christians that God has in some special way given to her what we and the whole Church will be given at the end of time.  This is a teaching not of Scripture, but a belief of the faithful.  As Luther says, it is pious and holy, but not required, and perhaps it is better treasured in the heart than set down in dogma.  It sees Mary to be an anticipation of the end of time, the prolepsis of the eschaton. What she is now, we and the whole Church anticipate in faith.  What she is now, we shall be.  She is the icon of our hope.

And so my fellow Christians, sons and daughters of the Church, and of that New Eve, Our Lady, let us not be shy. Let us not be miserly in spirit.  Let us join our voices with the voices of all generations who over the ages have honored the Mother of God! And let us praise her who, in the words of a great hymn, is “higher than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim”! Let us greet her and with the angel let us say:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Amen.