Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you make of Mary? Looking around, we find a few different approaches to Mary in other church traditions, and it’s easy to be confused. At times it seems that some churches elevate Mary almost to the status of a goddess. They pray and sing hymns to her. Some even commend their souls to her keeping at the hour of their death. At the other end of the spectrum, many Protestant Christians believe her to be “just like us” — nothing special. She is barely mentioned or thought about at all. That surely is not right either. How are we to think about Mary?
Today’s Gospel lesson brings together two very unlikely mothers-to-be. Elizabeth, an elderly lady well past childbearing age, was three months away from giving birth to John the Baptist. Her younger cousin from Nazareth travelled to Judea to stay with her for three months. She was under sixteen years old, and her name was Mary. This morning, Elizabeth has taught us the right way to think about Mary, and she also teaches how that applies to us today.
We learn that Mary is blessed among women
When Elizabeth was about six months pregnant, her teenage cousin from Nazareth named Mary was visited by an angel. The angel announced that Mary would conceive the Son of God by the Holy Spirit despite her virginity. He also told her that Elizabeth, who had been barren, was already six months along!
After the angel left her, Mary travelled 145 km to the hill country of Judea. After more than a few days of travel, she arrived at the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. As Mary approached Elizabeth’s house and Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice, John leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.
Elizabeth cried out in amazement: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth, moved by the Spirit, is humbled. She recognized that this was not just a teenage cousin who came to keep her company. She is humbled to be in her presence. Why does Elizabeth think that a visit from this girl is such a privilege? The unborn John leaps for joy because he heard Mary’s voice? Why is she so special? Because Elizabeth calls her “the mother of my Lord.” It took four hundred years for the church to muster the theological insight and courage to confess what Elizabeth said so easily. This young girl named Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin is the mother of the Lord. And if that doesn’t raise a few eyebrows this morning, you didn’t have enough coffee. The Creator Good, Lord of all creation, the one through whom all things were made, has a mother! As the ancient church declared, Mary is the mother of God.
I know some of you find that a bit uncomfortable. You may be thinking that calling Mary the “Mother of God” is a bit over the top. “Too Roman Catholic,” some might argue. We don’t believe in all that Mary stuff. True, we don’t say that she is a co-redemptrix. We don’t pray to her or seek her prayers in the hour of our death. But we dare not deny that she is the Mother of God. To do this would be to deny the incarnation of our Lord. If you say Mary is not the mother of God, then you’re saying that Jesus is not God. Is that what you believe? If so, we really need to have a chat.
Even when the spotlight is turned to Mary, the focus is still on her Son. It’s not really about Mary at all, but about her child. The child whom she carried. Mary is blessed among women. She is what every Israelite woman wanted to be: the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s child is true God and true man, inseparably united in one person. This is the great mystery at the heart of Christmas: the Infinite God took up residence in a tiny clump of foetal cells in the womb of His mother. Think about that. The Creator became the creature, the fulness of the Deity dwells in the humanity of Jesus growing in His mother’s belly. The One whom we call both Lord and God has a mother, just as you and I have mothers.
Elizabeth teaches us that Mary is blessed among women because she is the mother of our Lord. She teaches that we are correct to show her honour and great respect. Elizabeth blesses Mary; she doesn’t worship her or seek her blessing. She blesses Mary. We bless Mary, but we must not worship or pray to her. She did not earn her honour as the mother of our Lord; it was given to her. We bless Mary because she is the mother of our Lord. If we lose that, we lose the incarnation of the Son of God.
We learn that we are blessed if we believe
And there is more to Mary’s blessedness: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Elizabeth blesses Mary for her faith, believing that the Lord would do what He said. This is why Mary is also a picture of every Christian believer. Mary heard the Word of God through the angel. What was told to her sounded impossible: the Holy Spirit would come upon her. The power of God would shadow over her, and in her virginity, she would conceive a Son. He would be the promised Messiah who will save his people from their sins. Mary listened to that word, and she believed and conceived. She responded as only faith can respond to the Word of God. “Amen,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your Word.” And that’s how it is with us.
The same thing confronts you and I. We receive the word, and faith trusts God’s Word even when reason says it’s impossible. The word tells us that Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word. Even though what you see is a washing with water, it is really a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit. It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this. A faith like Mary’s says, “Yes. Amen. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Our reason tells us that we have to make amends, we must atone for our own sins, we must work our way into God’s favour. But, the word says that when we confess our sins privately to a pastor, we receive absolution from the pastor as from God Himself. The word encourages us to firmly trust that by the pastor’s absolution, our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. A faith like Mary’s says, “Yes. Amen. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Our senses tell us it’s only “bread and wine.” But Jesus himself says, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” The word tells us that with the bread and wine, the very body and blood of Christ are really and truly present, distributed, and received. In the Sacrament, the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us, and faith like Mary’s says, “Yes. Amen. Let it be to me according to your word.”
God has told us that in the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ, you have new life, your have forgiveness, you have peace, and have hope beyond death. And faith follows the example of Mary and says, “Let it be to me according to your Word.” And that is precisely what makes us blessed. The Blessed Virgin Mary is an example for us. And the Son of Mary has given you his word. That word comes to you in your Baptism, in the pastor’s absolution that forgives your sins, in the Supper of His own body and blood. Faith trusts God even when his word seems impossible to us! “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it,” says Jesus.
We sometimes don’t know what to think when we look at Mary. But the Elizabeth teaches us what to believe. Mary is the one who gave birth to God. She is mother of the Son of God. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” But you also are blessed who have heard the Word of God and believed. Blessed are you, who in the way of Mary, believe the incredible wonder that her child is God’s Son, your Lord, who came to save you. Will you share this blessedness of Mary? Will you believe, will you trust the promises of God for you? Elizabeth teaches us that if you trust God’s Word like Mary did, you too will be blessed.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.