Did you know the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is based on a true story of a girl named Mary Tyler? No, not Mary Tyler Moore, but a little girl in England who actually had a little lamb and took it to school one day. So, the nursery rhyme is a true story, just like the story of another Mary who gave birth to a little lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. The story of the Virgin Mary, as miraculous as it may be, is as true and real as any other factual historical story that we studied in grade school.
You know, in the Protestant church, and especially in the Evangelical church, very little is taught about Mary. This lack of attention on Mary is primarily a reaction, of course, against the perceived excesses of Mary worship in the Roman Catholic Church.
Ruth Haley Barton said in a recent Advent devotion, “In Protestant circles, we are very careful not to do anything that could be construed as “Mary worship.” We are so careful, in fact, that often we do not give her the respect she deserves. However, this week’s Gospel reading is entirely focused on Mary and her unique place in human history as the woman who birthed the divine Christ, God-made-flesh. It offers us a window into one person’s experience of receiving the will of God into her heart, into her body, and into her life. We do well not to dismiss her.”
So, despite any disagreement you may have with another branch of the Christian faith, I want to echo Barton’s challenge, and commit that this Christmas season we would do well not to dismiss the Virgin Mary.
Text (Luke 1:39-45)
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Prayer of Illumination
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Now, before we look at the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I want to point out something quite amazing about the encounter. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, which probably went something like, “Peace be unto this house,” the baby in Elizabeth leaped in her womb. The baby didn’t kick, it didn’t turn over; he leaped. The baby was dancing in the womb.
That baby of course is John the Baptist, who even before he was born was being blessed by and testifying to his younger cousin, Jesus the Messiah! Here is another miraculous birth about to happen, but Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist are instead focused on praising Jesus.
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and now catch this, the first words out of her mouth, are not a small whisper, but a shout of blessing, a shout of praise to the one who stands before her: “Blessed are you, Mary, among women….”
The Greek word for blessing here is eulogeo, where we get our English word eulogy from. It is praise that is heaped on someone for who they are or what they have done. When Jesus blessed the little children it was this word that he used. So, when we heap praise on someone we affirm who they are, their essence and their intrinsic beauty and worth. Someone who is blessed, who we eulogize, is said to be favored or graced by God.
The testimony or eulogy of Elizabeth is the testimony of the ages–Mary is blessed among women, because she is the favored one of God who will give birth to God’s Son, Jesus the Messiah.
So, downplaying Mary’s role in salvation history makes absolutely no sense. We don’t downplay Abraham, or Joseph, or Moses or any other blessed figure in Scripture. We often talk about Christians being the seed of Abraham, or Christ as a forgiver like Joseph, or a prophet/deliverer like Moses. Yet, we shouldn’t let the reality escape us that God never chooses people randomly for His redemptive plan, and Mary is indeed the blessed virgin mother of God because like the others, she is chosen for her special obedience. Hence, she deserves our attention, and we ought to hear what God is saying to the Church through her even for today.
In a scene later in Luke’s Gospel, a woman yells out from the crowd where Jesus is teaching, “Blessed is the mother who gave birth and nursed you!” (Luke 11:27). Yes, this Mary, this virgin, is blessed by God for having a little lamb named Jesus delivered through her.
Bless The Lord O’ My Soul
The First Commandment says that we are not to worship any other god’s but the One True God of Israel.
So, of course, we must be careful not to offer worship to Mary or any other human besides Jesus, who is God made flesh. This is why Elizabeth’s hymn of blessing and praise immediately moves to Jesus—“blessed is the child you will bear.”
Elizabeth is so overjoyed she is singing a song. Remember she is filled with the Holy Spirit, so she is in a state of ecstasy. She is blessing the Lord of her soul, Jesus Christ, and she is amazed that she could be aware of God’s very presence in the room. She is aware that Christ is in her midst, and is elated beyond measure.
This Christmas are we aware of the Living Christ in our midst? Are we filled with the Spirit, singing songs with great joy at the coming of our Lord? Has our Christmas become about materialism or family or time off from work. No, Christ is in our midst. We need to give thanks and celebrate Christ our Lord! (This is why I personally believe that whenever the church gathers it ought to celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the gift of God to us to know Christ’s presence in real and manifest way.)
But I want you to notice something. Even though Elizabeth is in absolute awe of the reality of the living Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God in her presence, she says these words: “How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” “… that the mother of my Lord….” Why is there is still a focus on the blessedness of Mary?
To have been chosen to be the Christ bearer was the dream of every Israelite woman, and for Elizabeth, there was no jealousy that she was not the one. She is just overwhelmed and blessed herself to be part of God’s redemptive plan, to be in the presence of such greatness.
Blessed Are The Obedient
Now remember when I quoted from Luke 11, a woman shouting from the crowd that Jesus’s mother was blessed. What was Jesus’ response? Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” Luke 11:28 (NIV).
You might interpret this text as Jesus rebuking the woman for praising and focusing too much on Mary, but we must first understand the difference of the word being used here. This blessed is not eulogeo, this is not necessarily praise, but the word we see in the Beatitudes. The blessed here is makarios, which means happy!
Even Elizabeth uses this word when she says that Mary is blessed or happy to have believed that God’s promises would come to past.
Mary is blessed by God, favored by God to be the Christokos, the Christ bearer, and it is because of her obedience that she is commended. Just as Abraham was commended for his faith, which justified him, Mary is blessed because of her obedience. She is the picture of obedience; she, like others in Scripture who follow God without hesitation, our are models for obedience.
If Jesus is the new Adam, who perfectly follows God, then Mary is like the new Eve, who does not disobey God, but follows in joy and obedience. This is the grand reversal of the Garden of Eden: Jesus the new Adam, and Mary the new Eve. Happiness is coming because the Kingdom of God is near. And so we have the first beatitude.
Yes, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. But the first beatitude is that the blessing of God comes to those who are obedient to His command, who believe His promises, shown through the new Eve, Mary the mother of Christ.
Blessed is Mary, how favored was she to bear the Christ, the True Blessing to the whole world. But the blessing of true joy, true happiness comes from our own obedience to God’s Word: our own faith in Christ.
So, for those of you who are opposed to seeing Mary as someone that should be praised or emulated, I would say that you are in danger of not being obedient to God’s Word.
Remember what Mary said in her Magnificat: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49).
(c) Paul Dordal, 2012