In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We call these days the “holidays.” I’m actually a little surprised that no website has commissioned someone to “explain” that the word holiday is actually the two words “holy” and “day” put together. Even though the official atheist and pagan organizations are probably campaigning against calling this time the “holy days,” that’s what they are. People will do what they want, but for Christ’s Church, these days are holy: that is, they are set apart for the purpose of training and shaping our minds and hearts and lives. Besides the normal Advent patterns and habits, which create in us longing and expectation and a sure and certain hope, we are going to consider two other holy days during our Advent preparation: The Annunciation, or the visit of Gabriel to Mary and the Visitation, or the visit of Mary with Elizabeth. During the third week, we’ll consider the Magnificat, which is the song of Mary after she is welcomed by Elizabeth.
Consider the words of Gabriel, the messenger of God: “Greetings, Favored One, the Lord is with you…Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor in the sight of God. And look, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. Thus, he will be great and He will be called the Son of the Highest One, and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His reign will have no end…The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest One will overshadow you; therefore, the one being born will be called the Son of God. And look, Elizabeth your relative, she also has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren. Because all things are possible with God” (1:28, 30-33, 35-37). One thing is clear: Mary was simply chosen out of God’s absolutely free will. The word that the angel directs toward Mary does not mean “full of grace,” which implies that there is something in Mary that perhaps caused God to choose her. Gabriel says that she is one who has been and is favored—graced—by God. Like Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, and David, there is no prior goodness that causes God to choose. She is not purer, holier, more willing, than any other Galilean girl. There is not, in this case, “something about Mary.” She has simply been favored, chosen, to be the mother of God according to the flesh—purely out of God’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in her. And in that free choice of God, He speaks a new word of creation through His preacher Gabriel: The Lord is with you. And He is, in a unique way for Mary: her womb is the throne of God for the first nine months of His human life. The Spirit was over the water of Mary’s womb, and God spoke, and it was: flesh for the eternal Son shaped from the clay of Mary’s body. An incredible miracle; the first really new thing in the history of creation. Beyond understanding: we cannot explain, only adore and worship at the words.
The way God deals with Mary is not different in kind from how He acts throughout history: there is often a singular, unique event that expands until it affects the entire creation. From the beginning, when God spoke light into the darkness; to the creation of Adam and Eve, who became the parents of all people; to Noah and his wife, his sons and their wives, through whom the whole earth was repopulated after the flood; to the man Jacob, who would become the nation of Israel; to Israel as the witness to the world of God’s activity in the whole world; all the way down to Mary. God was uniquely with her. She is not only a pattern for how God is with us, or an example of faith, or a universal illustration of the Church. She is, first of all, the unique and chosen vessel for the holy Son of God. God is with her in a way that He is with no other person. And yet, from that singular event, He is now with all people. From Mary’s flesh, He bears the sinful flesh of every person. From Mary’s dying body, He takes first the death of all bodies. He is with her so that He can be Immanuel, God-with-us. And then the response: I am the slave of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word. That is the definition of faith: the Lord speaks; His Word does everything He says that He will do; and the sinner responds: that Word is for me.
We need this Word, yesterday, today, tomorrow. We need this Word at no time more than now. This Advent, again, our world reels with violence and death and confusion. The problems in our lives and families do not go away simply because these are the “holidays.” Often, in fact, our problems are made worse at this time of the year. And we are too gone to notice the miracle on which the entire creation is balanced; we claim some prior goodness or purity for Mary, maybe because we want to believe that God has chosen us for some reason in us. That He sees our good intentions, what we really meant to do, what is in our hearts, and that it will cause Him somehow to overlook our evil words and our evil actions. No: it’s pure and undeserved favor for Mary and for us. The only reason for His favor toward us is Jesus. It’s only “The favor by which He has favored us in the Beloved, in whom we have the redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:6).
March 25 is the holy day on which we celebrate the Annunciation, nine months before December 25. His birth was a birth like any other, and Mary herself knew the pain of childbirth that had been announced to Eve. But the one who was announced to Mary came to undo the curse announced to Eve. The one conceived in Mary at the Word of the messenger was conceived without the sin of Adam. The one whom Mary carried in her womb for nine months carried in His own flesh all the sin of the world, and He took it to the cross. Finally, finally, the Seed of the Woman was born who would crush the head of the serpent, for Mary and for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/2/14