Advent 4 - Year C
The Blessed Virgin Mary
In the Church of England we often forget how important the Blessed Virgin Mary is in our Christian tradition. She has, by contrast, a much more elevated position in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. How can we Anglicans get the balance right?
In the Orthodox Church, Mary is known as the "Theotokos" – the God-bearer. How can we ever imagine what Mary’s responsibility must have involved? What it must have meant to her to bear God’s Son and to give birth to him – especially in such difficult circumstances – and then to care for him throughout his childhood and adolescence?
The virgin birth is, to some, a controversial aspect of the story of Jesus’ birth, and in recent years this traditional belief of the Church has been increasingly challenged. The belief in the virginity of Mary is not, however, optional. If Jesus is God’s Son, and God is his biological father, not Joseph, then it makes sense that God should have organised things so that Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was conceived.
Virgin births are not unknown in the animal kingdom. There is a recent story of a female shark which gave birth while having not been near a male shark for six years. There are apparently several species of snakes and lizards in which the female can give birth without the need for a male of the species. Of course a woman can now give birth through in vitro fertilisation without ever having had sexual intercourse. Not that I’m suggesting that that’s how God worked. It is just to say that the matter is not black and white – it would be foolish to rush into saying that ‘science has disproved the virgin birth’.
But let's move on to what we can learn from Mary. Mary is especially known for her obedience: her humble submission to the will of God. Today 'obedience’ as a religious doctrine is not very fashionable. It is true that the Christian obedience has been abused by the Church at certain points in history, with priests and bishops requiring unswerving and unthinking subservience on the part of believers, and justifying this by appealing to Scripture and the example of people like Mary. Today, however, we tend to want to resist doing something just because we’re told to do it. Even in schools - at least in some - obedience to teachers has become far more diluted than it used to be. Don’t make the little darlings do it if they don’t want to.
It is all too easy, however, to lose sight of the spiritual benefits of obedience. Obedience has traditionally been part of the Church’s teaching on spiritual discipline: part of the process of learning how to become less selfish and self-centred is the task of learning how to be obedient. Obedience may be necessary at work; it may be necessary as part of family life – children learning how to obey their parents, husbands and wives doing what the other wants – even against their better judgement or personal preference – because they love them. And of course obedience is part of our relationship with God. I think many people today have lost sight of the need to obey God. People look instead for churches which make them feel good – or where there are just a lot of like-minded people – rather than being ready to be tested or pushed spiritually in church. Don’t forget that Jesus warned that the path to his kingdom would not be easy – he talked about the narrow gate that leads to salvation, and the eye of the needle, through which few could pass. So let’s not forget those difficult commands of Jesus – about loving one’s enemies, forgiving seventy times seven times, going the extra mile, being generous with one’s wealth. The real obedience which God wants is obedience to his Son Jesus – which should of course be consistent with what the Church expects of us, but, sadly, is not always the same.
There are not a very large number of references to Mary in the Bible. One of the most famous passages is that which we have heard this morning – the song sung by Mary when the angel Gabriel told her she was to bear God’s Son. This is known now as the "Magnificat", and is often sung or said at evensong. But how much do we know about it? To what extent do we take to heart the radical and indeed revolutionary sentiments which it contains? "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts ... he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek."
The magnificat is indeed radical. It calls for a new world order. Jesus set in motion a chain of events which would begin to make the world a better place, and Mary was at the very beginning of that chain of events – without her and her obedience to God, it could never have happened. So we must not lose sight of Mary and the part she played in the incarnation: her virgin birth, her obedience, and her remarkable song, the "Magnificat". She was ultimately to experience her own sadness – the unique sadness that comes when your child dies before you do. But eventually, of course, she was to share with the disciples in the joy of Jesus' resurrection. She was, therefore, not just honoured to be part of God’s first great miracle in the life of Jesus (the virgin birth), but she was also involved in the fulfilment of that life – when Jesus showed the disciples and indeed the whole world that God had not been defeated, but that the one who was finally conquered was Death himself.