With Mary in Mind

Our Lady of Walsingham Westminster Cathedral London

Our Lady of Walsingham, pulpit of Westminster Cathedral, London

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017.  The scripture readings are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26Romans 16:25-27, and Luke 1:26-38.

Listen to the sermon HERE

For many Christians, the Virgin Mary sort of moves in for her close-up this season, and that’s the case especially on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. She is invoked in music, personified in Christmas pageants, and even used as a tastefully generic holiday image on a postal stamp. And yet, for some more Protestant Christians, once the decorations are put away, any thought of Mary also disappears. Roman Catholics tend to make more room for Mary, but sometimes religious practice gives way to superstition, and Mary becomes a caricature.

As Anglicans, and as the Episcopal Church that seeks a “middle way” in most things, when it comes to the Virgin Mary, we are often [surprise!] ambivalent. We mention her from time to time. We might even have a statue or image of her here or there. But what does she matter for our own faith? What does she matter for our relationship with Jesus Christ? And does God mind if we forget about Mary?

I think she matters quite a lot. She matters for our relationship with Jesus Christ, and God “minds” Mary literally, since Mary has been in the mind of God from the beginning.   Today’s scriptures provide pointers as to how this all happens.

In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care.

But God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.”

The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary.

The aumbry, the little cupboard in the wall of our sanctuary is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion.  It’s where the sanctuary light burns to show that the Reserved Sacrament is inside.  It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.

We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has Mary in mind as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.

Patristic scholars and theologians who think a lot about the Virgin Mary suggest that God has Mary in mind even in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve represent us at our very best and most pure. They are us when we are at our very best selves, but they are us especially when we’re at our best, and before we know it, we’ve been tricked and we stumble. Whether by pride, or lust, or greed, or anything else—we have a tendency to stumble and fall. We fall with Adam and Eve right out of the garden.

But Jesus (in the theology of St. Paul and others) is a new Adam, a chance to re-do things. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. As the old Eve says “No” to God. “I’ll go my own way, thank you very much.” The New Eve, Mary, says “Yes.” “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”

Karl Barth, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the twentieth century wrote about Mary as “the moment” in our history when we were cleared of our sin, made holy by grace, and made ready to receive God’s presence, God’s Incarnation.  He wrote of Mary as that moment when God brought all these things together, for us.

And that moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.

Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—too often it smacks of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.

Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.

The Good News of this day and this season is that God had Mary in mind. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)

But the Good News is that God had and has us in mind, too. We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.

St. Ambrose, the 5th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.

Christians the world over sometimes refer to Mary as “full of grace.”  But the Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, God has Mary in mind. And thanks be to God, that God has us in mind too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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