✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Some of the most important women in the Old Testament are ones who were barren or infertile or beyond the age of childbearing–and yet beyond all expectation, God granted them to be mothers. Think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, and Hannah. They are pictures of how our God is One who creates out of nothing. The closed, infertile womb is the most fertile ground for God’s saving work. For it shows how God brings His deliverance without our contribution or works or efforts or attributes. The same God who created out of nothing, also brings salvation out of nothing for us. These births emphasize that it’s all God’s grace simply to be received in trusting faith.
And so appropriately on this final Sunday in Advent, on the threshold of the celebration of the gracious birth of Christ, our Gospel tells of the meeting of two women who are remarkably, miraculously pregnant. One woman is well past the age of bearing children, probably in her sixties; the other is a young virgin, probably no older than sixteen or so. Elizabeth is six months along with John the Baptizer, the prophet and forerunner of Christ. Mary has conceived a child in her virginity by the Holy Spirit. Both of them are pregnant by the power of God’s Word. They are living testimony that “with God nothing is impossible.”
The angel Gabriel had told Mary the news concerning Elizabeth, and so Mary hurried off to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin and share in her happiness. And as soon as Mary’s greeting reached Elizabeth’s ears, the baby jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. What an amazing thing! The sound of Mary’s voice caused the unborn baby John to leap with happiness. Even as a six-month-old fetus in his mother’s womb he is already bearing witness to Christ! Mary gives voice to the Messiah within her, and the sound of that voice causes John to rejoice.
Who says that babies can’t believe? And who would dare argue that even unborn children can’t benefit from being in church and hearing the Word? If the sound of Mary’s greeting filled the baby Baptizer with joy, how much more will the sound of the living voice of Christ’s Word bring life and joy to the unborn! Being in the Liturgy, hearing the Word, eating and drinking the Sacrament is a vital part of every Christian woman’s prenatal care.
The same holds true for our infants and toddlers and little ones. They need to hear God’s Word even before they know what all the words mean. They need to grow into the vocabulary of forgiveness and eternal life in the divine service. They will have all eternity to master it, but the earlier they start, the better. Instead of merely soaking in the screen-driven preaching of the world, they need rather to be filled with the sound of God’s Word at home and in church, to know the historic hymns of the faith and the ancient creeds that have been handed down to us. A child can believe without fully understanding, just like adults do. A child can respond to God’s Word without having a huge vocabulary. If you doubt that, just remember John’s leap for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.
The Gospel also records that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, John’s mother Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And by the Holy Spirit, she says of Mary and her holy Child. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” You may recognize those words. Together with Gabriel’s earlier greeting, they are the first part of the Ave Maria . “Hail, Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” We Lutherans, who hold to the sacred Scriptures, can agree with those words, at least.
Though considerably older than Mary, Elizabeth considers it an honor and a gift of God that Mary should come and visit her. She calls her younger relative “the mother of my Lord.” That’s why the church rightly calls Mary the Theotokos, “the mother of God.” She is the bearer of the eternal Word, the Son of God. She is the door through whom God entered our world, the temple in which our Savior chose to dwell as a tiny unborn child. She is the chosen and honored instrument of the Incarnation of God, through whom the Son of God received His humanity, so that He might offer it for the life of the world. Mary is truly blessed among women, and every generation of the faithful rightly recognizes this.
All women, especially younger women, have a great role model in Mary. She teaches us that the highest honor of women is motherhood. For every pregnancy and birth is connected to and is an image of the birth of our Savior, who shared in the humanity of every child, born and unborn. And in our culture that glorifies promiscuous celebrities and makes fun of chastity and virginity, in an age when pre-marital sex is pretty much considered the standard, Mary stands out as a picture of what happens when God’s Word holds sway with someone. She is filled with the Spirit and the Scriptures. Her psalm of praise, the Magnificat, shows us that this young woman knew the psalms well. She believed the Word of God that was preached to her by the angel. In that faith she said “yes” to God’s plan that she would be the virgin mother of the world’s Savior.
We do indeed bless and honor Mary–not because she has some special higher holiness of her own, but because of the Lord’s grace in choosing her. Who else but Mary is the source of our Lord’s human nature? Whose womb but hers was His throne room for nine months? Who else but Mary was He dependent on for nourishment as an infant? Jesus alone is sinless, but His mother is blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for her by His Word. To honor her is to honor the incarnation of God, to praise God for taking on human flesh to save us.
We sometimes have difficulty in blessing and honoring Mary. Perhaps it’s because we have difficulty with anything special and different that God sets apart for His holy purposes. Our culture has lost the idea of the sacred–sacred time, sacred space, sacred people, sacred things. Everything tends to be ordinary for our culture, the same, generic, interchangeable. Our age wants churches to be “comfortable,” the pastor to be “just a regular guy,” worship to be indistinguishable from the surrounding world, Mary to be just another pregnant teenager.
But that’s not how it is with the Lord. And so we treat the church building as a holy space. We don’t just stomp in here as though we were entering a stadium or an auditorium or a store–or at least we shouldn’t. This place is set apart. It isn’t because the carpeting is holy, or the concrete or wood is holy. It’s because of the Word of God that is preached and heard here. The Word makes this space holy and blessed.
Or consider the bread in the Lord’s Supper. We don’t throw it away after communion or even put it back with ordinary bread, because it is holy; the Word of God has been added to it which declares it to be and makes it to be body of Christ in the Sacrament. Likewise the chalice–we treat it as a holy thing; something sacred. You would be offended if I took it home and used it at my dinner table, not because the chalice is made of silver and gold, but because it is used for something sacred: to distribute the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ that it holds is what makes it holy.
And so it is with Mary. She is blessed and holy not of herself but on account of what she holds, on account of the holy Child that was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She is the instrument of our Lord’s incarnation, and for that reason she is to be blessed by all who believe in her Son for their salvation.
Mary is certainly not to be worshiped or prayed to. That would irritate her. No, her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. She directs our attention to the same place–to her Child. Mary teaches us not to take our place with the proud and the powerful, the ruling and the rich of this world. For the Lord is a toppler of thrones. He puts the powerful in their place. He scatters and puts down the self-sufficient and the self-righteous. There is nothing and no one that can withstand the strength of God’s arm. He destroys everything that competes for our trust.
Rather, Mary teaches us to worship God with humility and awe, for “His mercy is on those who fear Him” in reverent faith. He lifts up those who are humbled and bowed down. God helps those who cannot help themselves. “He has shown strength with His arm” especially by extending His arms on the cross for us to crush the power of death and Satan. His arm reaches out to fill the hungry with good things, even and especially here in the holy Supper.
Mary teaches us that our God is One who keeps His Word. He helps His people “in remembrance of His mercy.” He is faithful to His promises. Galatians 4 says that in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of Mary, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons. Just think about what that means for you: Mary gave birth to Jesus. And you are members of Jesus’ body. That means that Mary is your mother in Christ and the mother of all Christians.
In this way Mary is a picture of the church and of all believers. You, too, are virgin pure and holy; for you are washed by the blood of Jesus that has cleansed you from every spot of sin. The Lord has been conceived and born in your hearts by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word. He dwells in you through faith.
And so you also magnify the Lord with Mary. For the Mighty One has done great things for you. He has scattered the pride of your sin, and toppled the old Adam from the throne of your heart so that Christ reigns there as your Savior-King. God is faithful to you; He will complete what He began in your baptism and bring His promises to their culmination on the day of His return. Just like Mary, blessed also are you who believe that what the Lord has said to you will be accomplished.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(Some of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Cwirla, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Hacienda Heights, CA.)