“The Lord is With Thee”

(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

Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale

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.

“He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease”

(Year B, Advent 3, December 17, 2017; Gospel Reading from John 3:22-30)

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27-30 (ESV)

The Appearance of Christ Before the People,
A. Ivanov, ca. 1837-1857

Last week, I wrote about our mutual unworthiness in comparison with Jesus Christ, and how this provides an example for modern day ministers of the Gospel.  This week, John the Baptist reveals another great truth that all Christians, and especially all would-be ministers should and must keep in mind: “I am not the Christ.”

You might be thinking, “But that’s obvious!  I am the first to admit I’m not perfect, and heaven knows that if John wasn’t worthy to unlace Jesus’ sandals, I’m barely fit to walk the same ground as Him!”  And that’s a fair and rightly humble attitude to take.  But does it marry up to your everyday life?  When you are met with adversity is your first response to pray and give it over to God?  When met with reproof for your actions (never mind if you believe they are right or wrong), do you accept the correction?  In a disagreement, is your first instinct to relinquish the high ground so that the other will not fall into deeper disaster?  I know in my case, the answer is “no, no, and no.”  It is like I know in my head that I am not the Christ, but my actions and attitudes are what I imagine a Chosen King’s should be.  But being the Christ is not merely about perfection or overwhelming Worthiness.  John said, “I am not the Christ” because his followers needed to understand that, for all his good teaching, John was not what he prepared the way for.  We say, “I am not the Christ” because the truth of that statement is painfully and abundantly manifest in our lives.

To be the Christ, as I said, is not just about perfection and the inherent Worthiness of being the very Son of God.  To be the Christ is to trust perfectly in the Father, secure in the perfect love between Father and Son.  To be the Christ is to put the personal will second to the Father’s Will.  To be the Christ is also to be the perfect lover of the souls of men and women.  Setting aside my imperfection and my inherent un-Worthiness as a created being, I find it easy to trust God – but only when things are already in hand.  I can easily subject my own will to His – so long as our wills aren’t that far different.  Finally, I love people – especially those that I know will love me back, and look like the sort of people that it’s okay for me to hang around.

I am not the Christ.  It is only if Christ lives in me that I can claim any part of Him.

John says “I am not the Christ” to emphasize that he is not the Big Thing that his followers are supposed to be looking for.  He goes on to say “my joy is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  In the words he uses to teach his disciples his role in the First Advent of Jesus Christ, John also gives us the secret to turn the heaviness of the charge “I am not the Christ” into the hope and joy of all the world:  By sacrificing myself – putting my will, wants, and appetites second – I leave room for Jesus to fill my life with His perfection.  But any part of me that I do not give up, that I hold onto tightly, that part of me cannot be transformed and filled with Jesus.  The prescription against the disease of sinful Death is that “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This reading is for the Third Sunday in Advent.  Advent is one of two seasons of preparation, the other being Lent.  Advent is not overtly penitential in character in the same way that Lent is, but an overarching principle of “making ready” connects the two seasons.  In Advent, we anticipate Jesus’ Second Coming by remembering the first.  We started off this journey talking about the End of the Age.  Last week, we continued by recognizing our unworthiness-made-worthy in God’s call upon our lives, and the call for all of us to be like little Johns the Baptist.  This week we hear again from John, who this time models for us the behaviors and attitudes necessary for our hearts and souls to be made ready for the Lord.  Next week, we will hear the culmination of the first Advent story, and celebrate the realness of the first Christmas while the whole creation groans for the restoration following the Last Christmas, which will be the Day of the Lord.

In response to this reading, and as a preparatory and prayerful meditation looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation as a baby boy in a stable, I invite you to join me in praying: “I am not the Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.