(Year B, Advent 4/Christmas Eve; Gospel reading from Luke 1:26-38)
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’”
– Luke 1:26-28
We are almost there. The past few weeks, as we have followed the readings in Advent, have you felt the anticipation building? Especially in the last couple of weeks, we have seen glimpses of Jesus in the Gospel readings, but he plays a relatively minor part. This week, that anticipation builds to a head as we have arrived both in the last Sunday of Advent and at Christmas Eve. Advent 2 and 3 both focused heavily on John the Baptist; this week’s Gospel is all about Mary.
As an Anglican Christian, sometimes it seems hard to know what to “do” with Mary. Anglicans get asked all the time if we are Catholic or Protestant. The stock (and true) answer is that we are both catholic and reformed. We are catholic in the ancient sense of the word, in that we believe and express the faith once preached by the Apostles, and we are reformed as it relates to setting to rights the excesses and errors of the Medieval Church. Where does Mary fit in with this?
Mary is an extremely important figure in the Salvation story. Just as Jesus redeemed the sin of Adam by laying down his life for the sake of the world, God undid the shame and reproach brought on by Eve’s sin by causing the Christ to be miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit acting upon a virgin. The Son could have materialized as a bodily Savior without any interaction with a mother, but Christians believe that this was the better way, because it left no doubt as to His origin as it concerns His manhood (at least not to those who hear and believe the power of God). By being born of the virgin, the Son explicitly shows His Creation that He truly came for all humanity, and explicitly shows that both male and female have a place in the Kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, in response to the excesses of the Middle Ages, many Protestant movements eschewed any kind of Marian contemplation whatever (although this was not true from the beginning; Luther himself promoted a reverence – but not veneration – of Mary). It can be a rare thing to see Protestant religious art that depicts Mary as a subject. Many “mainline” Protestants will acknowledge other Biblical saints, but shy away from observing feasts related to Mary, such as the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mary’s Saint Day). Is this reaction borne out in Scripture?
I contend that the total demotion of Mary to just “merely” the vehicle by which the Incarnate Son of God entered the world is just as error prone as the over-zealous promotion of the Blessed Virgin to near deity. For how does Gabriel address her? “Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you!” The King James says “Hail thou that art highly favored,” from which we get the opening to the prayer known as the Hail Mary.
The Church has said the Hail Mary since nearly the beginning, though it was originally rendered as
Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast given birth to the Savior of our Souls.
None of this is objectionable: the first sentence and first two clauses of the second are found directly in Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation; the closing clause is no less scriptural, since Mary did indeed bear the Savior of our Souls, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, what do we “do” with Mary? We do exactly as the angel Gabriel did. We acknowledge before God that he chose a mortal woman to deliver His Christ into the world. We reflect upon the Gospel truth that “blessed [is she] among women!” We rejoice in the fulfillment of prophecy first given by Isaiah that “a virgin shall give birth to a child, and call his name Emmanuel.” If you feel led, there is no harm in praying the Eastern Orthodox Hail Mary, because it does all of this and no more. It gives all the honor due to the Blessed Virgin without embellishment or detraction.
Alternatively, when I say the Hail Mary, I say a form that acknowledges the Scriptural witness about the Blessed Virgin and points the salvific focus back on Christ:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Son of God, son of Mary, have mercy on us sinners now and in the hour of our deaths.
This is not so different from the original English rendering of the Orthodox Hail Mary, and I believe such a form should be said when the Christian feels led to reverence Mary. I do not recall now where I first came across this form; if anyone reading this recognizes it please reference it in the comments.
As we approach Christmas Day, and celebrate the First Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to join the angel Gabriel, the historic Church, and modern day Christians as we all say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.