Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent: "The Woman Who Made It All Possible"
Christmas is the time of year when people can’t help but act Catholic. Everyone sets up their nativity scenes – images of the saints no longer being graven images so long as they form part of a cute manger scene – and you even hear songs about Mary. Preparing for Christmas, we have to think about the woman who made it all possible. Even those who are normally virulently opposed to any sort of Marian devotion, find Her appeal irresistible in the month of December.
It wasn’t always that way, though. For centuries, many Protestant denominations objected to the celebration of Christmas. In 1647, the Puritan-led English parliament replaced the public holiday of Christmas with a mandatory day of fasting, decrying Christmas as “‘a popish festival with no biblical justification,’ and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.” John Calvin, not happy about being forced by local custom to preach a Christmas service, took the opportunity to call his congregation a bunch of superstitious beasts. On these shores, the Puritan settlers of New England spent their first Christmas day in the New World in 1620 constructing a building to demonstrate their total contempt of the holiday. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas became a popular celebration outside Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran circles.
Without a doubt, the prominence of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, in the celebration of Christmas was one of the reasons for early Protestants despising or even banning its celebration. You just can’t celebrate Christmas without honoring Mary.
The prophet Micah tells us today that the Savior of the Jewish people will come from a royal line – from Bethlehem, the city of David, the greatest of the kings of Israel, the leader of God’s chosen people. Not only is the Messiah descended from David, though. We hear in the English translation of the Scriptures that his “origin is from of old.” The original Hebrew means “from days of eternity” or even “from the east” – which direction the Jewish people associated with the divine. Both the Temple and the palace in Jerusalem faced east, awaiting the coming of the Messiah. We can see in the prophets that the Savior to come is not just a human person, a military leader like his ancestor David. He is “from days of eternity” – He is divine. He is God Himself.
This prophecy of the birth of Christ can’t help but mention Mary. Israel’s salvation shall begin “when she who is to give birth has borne.”
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception eleven days ago, we heard the archangel Gabriel greet the blessed Mother as “full of grace.” Today, following the Annunciation and Incarnation of the Lord, Mary “[travels] to the hill country in haste” to see Her cousin Elizabeth, whom Gabriel has told Her expects a child despite her old age.
When Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth, some strange things happen. We are used to hearing about this scene, so we might not notice them. First, we don’t know how Elizabeth knows so much about what has happened to Mary. It’s not like Mary sent her a Snapchat selfie of Her baby bump. Maybe the angel told Elizabeth. Or more likely, maybe she has a particular spiritual intuition, a prophetic inspiration from the Lord. But somehow she has to know.
People at that time were extremely conscious of social rank. And Elizabeth far outranks Mary. First, she is much older, in a society that had great reverence for elders. And more importantly, she is the wife of a high-ranking priest who was among the very few able to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the most important of sacrifices. Mary, meanwhile, is betrothed to a humble tradesman in a forgotten backwater.
And yet, Elizabeth uses the highest praise possible to greet her lowly cousin. “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” These words echo the words of that royal ancestor of Jesus, King David, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the royal city of Jerusalem for the first time. For the Jews, the Ark was the holiest object in the world. It was the divine presence, really, not just symbolically. Elizabeth cries out “in a loud voice” like David, and John “leaps for joy” in her womb just as David leapt and danced before the Ark. Elizabeth and even John the Baptist in her womb recognize that they stand before an incredibly holy and pure bearer of the Divine, just like we celebrated earlier this month in Her Immaculate Conception.
Elizabeth salutes Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” In ancient cultures, including in the Scriptures, the real queen was not the king’s wife, but his mother. Solomon, David’s son, places his mother Bathsheba on the throne beside him, giving her a blank check for whatever she wants in his kingdom. Elizabeth recognizes Mary as the Queen, and thus to say that the Blessed Mother is our queen as well as far as possible from being “unbiblical.”
This great honor isn’t just something that happens to Mary, but something in which her cooperation is absolutely essential. There’s the basic maternal part – Mary actively sustains the earthly body of the Divine Child during the nine months of Her pregnancy – but there is something even more important. Elizabeth says that, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Mary believes. Her faith is precisely what is praised here. She doesn’t just happen to be pregnant with Jesus. She carries Him in Her womb because She is the faithful disciple – the first to believe.
We hear St. Paul today quoting the words of Psalm 40 in the Letter to the Hebrews – “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.” Animal sacrifices and burnt offerings were the primary way that the Jewish people had worshiped the one true God for thousands of years. But this was always plan B. God makes clear that what He really wants is obedience.
The prophet Jeremiah had already told the Jewish people: “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.”
And we can think back to Adam and Eve as well – their sin is primarily one of disobedience to a simple divine command – of all the other trees in the garden you may eat, but not this tree.
Christ, then, comes to be the truly obedient one, who in the place of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and all those other people in the Bible who had been disobedient to God, comes to obey the will of His Father. “But a body you prepared for me.” Christ’s obedience is not just an attitude or a feeling, but a concrete act that involved the sacred body He received from Mary – laying down His life for us. Mary’s obedience in faith, anticipating Christ’s obedience, makes possible that human body – the one that She will lay in the manger, and that will be laid in Her arms on Good Friday.
That sad moment is not the end of Mary’s story. There is a surprising detail hidden in Elizabeth’s address: “Blessed are you among women.” In the Old Testament, this praise is given to only two other women: Jael and Judith. These two women delivered the people of Israel from grave danger, when they were on the point of being conquered. In both cases, they gained entrance to the tent of the leader of the opposing army and killed him in dramatic fashion: Jael by driving a stake through his skull, and Judith by cutting off his head.
Why in the world, then, would Elizabeth compare her gentle and meek cousin to these two warrior women? Mary too is a conqueror. She conquers with neither stake nor knife, but with the power of Her obedience and Her faith. She is not only the Mother mild of Bethlehem, but the prodigious sign appearing the Book of Revelation: “A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She conquers the great enemy, into whose snare the first mother of the living, Eve, fell through disobedience. Mary, the new Mother and Queen of Heaven and Earth, defeats the Prince of Lies and the Prince of Disobedience, whose motto is, “I will not serve.” Mary, in Her humility and fullness of grace, is the new queen and the new conqueror, the one who stands next to Her victorious Son not only in the manger, not only at the foot of the Cross, but triumphantly in Heaven.
When you go home today, take a moment to stop before your nativity scene. Look at that young, meek, virgin Mother, and ask Her Son to help you see Her as your glorious Queen.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXXI