Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
TEXT: Luke 1:39-45
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:41-43)
“Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” So said Elizabeth, when her much younger relative came to visit her. Elizabeth was at the time pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist, and Luke tells us that—at Mary’s greeting—the fetus within Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy.
“Why has this happened to me? Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?”
Today, I’m going to tread on dangerous ground for a Protestant minister … because I’m going to offer you a message about the “Mother of God.” It is a theme around which Protestants have stepped warily, fearful of trespassing into the realm of idolatry. Today, however, I invite you to put old trepidations aside, step nearer with me, and take a closer look.
But first, let’s start with something less theologically flammable—like the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, and, in contrast, the speck of dust called earth, and the dust mites which live upon it; namely, us!
During the last century or so, we’ve become increasingly aware of our smallness. Since 1990, we’ve had the Hubble telescope up in space, offering us glimpses of stars and planets almost infinitely distant from us. Since 1997, we’ve been sending motorized robots to explore the surface of Mars, and Voyager One—which has been providing us with pictures of our solar system since 1977—exited the heliosphere in 2012, carrying the “golden record” into inter-stellar space.*
Advances like these have radically altered our perspective on our place in the universe. Also, the thoughts of brilliant minds—like Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies—have sharpened our awareness of the awesome immensity of things, and of our own apparent insignificance.
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established,” wrote the psalmist, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them …?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
Atheists of a nihilistic bent would quickly reply: “Nothing! Humanity is nothing!”
Others would say that—even if there is a Supreme Being who created this enormous universe—you cannot expect him, her (or it) to be personally interested in us.
To such people, our faith in a God who knows our names and guides our footsteps … Well, it’s just nonsense. To them, we are but chance flecks of consciousness in an unconscious cosmos. We do not count for anything.
To such people, our Advent and Christmas celebrations are the pathetic residue of primitive mythology. To them, Christmas is a game we play once a year, to brighten up a meaningless existence.
But, to such people, the Christian Church has this to say: “Let us tell you about the young woman who became the mother of God.”
Modern people are not the first to imagine a deep gulf between God and his Creation—between the divine and the human. In very ancient times, people believed that the gods lived high above the earth, beyond the blue dome arching above us. Occasionally, these gods might visit the mountain peaks, or ride across the sky in the sun, the moon and the stars. Much later—by the golden age of Greek civilization—philosophers developed loftier, more abstract conceptions of deity—but these were more like an Ideal than like a living, loving Person. To thinkers like Plato, the idea of communing intimately with God would have seemed ridiculous.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church had to struggle against philosophies which declared that the sublime God could not tolerate any direct contact with human beings. God was pure spirit, they said, and he was far too holy to dirty his hands by touching the imperfect, debased, material world. According to this scheme of things, humanity and divinity could never meet.
However, there could be go-betweens. Some Hellenistic religions believed in superbeings who could act as intermediaries. Nevertheless, close relationship between God and earthlings was thought to be impossible.
Not surprisingly, some Christians who had been educated in this philosophy (saturated with it, in fact!) tried to force Christ into a more acceptable Hellenistic mould. As a group, we refer to them today as Gnostics.
Some Gnostics held that Jesus was neither God nor human, but a supernatural mediator. According to them, Mary gave birth to another class of being—one who came to bring knowledge of God to humanity, so that we crude earthlings could begin the long climb to purification and, ultimately, arrive in the highest heaven.
Another school of thought said that Jesus was divine—but was definitely not born of a woman. Rather, he came as a spirit in human disguise. People thought they were dealing with a man—but that was merely an illusion; the feet of Jesus never really touched the corrupt ground of planet earth.
The mainstream of Christianity, though, believed quite differently. And orthodox Christians tried to counter Gnostic teaching in a number of ways. Today, I want to talk about two of these ways: story and creed.
One way of countering Hellenistic philosophy was by the use of story.
Towards the end of the first century, as the Gnostic distortions began to gain strength, Christians started to speak more frequently about the birth of Jesus. They asserted that, while Jesus was—unequivocally—God, he was also—unequivocally—human, born of flesh and blood, just like all the rest of us.
Before that—during the first three decades or so of the Church’s history—Christians did not much concern themselves with the birth of Jesus. It was his teaching, death and resurrection that occupied their worship and proclamation. In fact, the very earliest documents of Christianity—like most of the New Testament letters, and the Gospel of Mark—make almost no mention of Jesus’ birth.
But by the time Matthew and Luke were writing, the Gnostic influence was becoming very powerful. Realizing this, these two gospel writers set out to explain just how the eternal Word of God became incarnate. Using slightly different details, Matthew and Luke tell the story of how Jesus was born as a human baby. They declare that God can indeed have direct interactions with people. The gulf between heaven and earth was wide, but not impassable; it was, in fact, bridged by God himself—and he did it by taking on our human flesh.
So in Luke’s story, when a pregnant Mary pays a visit to her pregnant relative Elizabeth, the older woman exclaims: “Who am I, that I should be visited by the mother of my Lord?”
Mark those words: she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” In that sentence, the supposed rift between heaven and earth is closed. This—in story form—is a profound statement of faith.
The human woman Mary gave birth to the divine Child, and—in Christ Jesus—humanity and divinity come together. For God, flesh is not an insurmountable obstacle. A woman’s body is neither an impossible—nor an unworthy—place for God to reside.
A second way in which Christians countered Hellenistic thought was by the use of creeds. Especially by the fourth and fifth centuries, they tried to protect faith in the incarnate Christ through formal creeds, voted on at ecumenical councils.
During this period, the phrase “mother of God” was written into creedal texts. Now, in doing this, the bishops were not imparting divine status to Mary. They were definitely not saying that Mary preceded God or that she created God! But they were insisting that the divine Child started as a human fetus, carried in Mary’s womb and later nursed at her breast.
God’s true Child, our Lord Jesus, was fully mothered by Mary. She was truly the mother who bore the Divine Son of God. And so, the gulf between God and earth is bridged by that creedal expression, “Mother of God.”
To the elite philosophers, this was shocking stuff! But the Christians persisted.
“Like it or lump it,” they said. “That’s how it is.”
By calling Mary the God-bearer, the Church declared that spirit and flesh were not antagonists. Christians affirmed that God and people were much closer than the Greek philosophers thought. But more than that, they made clear the following points:
- God does not despise this earth;
- Men and women are not too impure to have the most intimate contact with God;
- God has made us for fellowship with himself; and
- God loves us and treasures us as his beloved children.
Historically, Protestants have been wary of the phrase, “Mother of God.” We’ve been afraid that it comes too close to deifying Mary. But that was never the true intention of Roman Catholic teaching.
In any case, the birth stories of Matthew and Luke—and the creeds of the fifth century—were not trying to exalt Mary into a demi-god. They were simply testifying to the truth: that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God really did walk among us, as one of us.
Divinity really did issue from the body of Mary. She truly was the God-bearer, the mother of our Lord. Christianity as we know it is based upon this assumption. So, on this fourth Sunday of Advent—as a Protestant—I want to celebrate the phrase, “Mother of God.”
First and foremost, I want to celebrate it because it underscores the incomparable love of God. It also emphasizes the unique humility of God, and the saving beauty of God.
Secondly, it proclaims that there is hope for our race. If the Divine can become “incarnate in the virgin’s son,” then humanity and divinity are not poles apart! Human flesh is not a lost cause, for God himself has become “bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh.”
Cosmically speaking, we may appear as insignificant bits of chance consciousness on one irrelevant speck of dust. But, according to the Bible, we can be God-bearers. For we are made in God’s own image.
As Athanasius of Alexandria put it: “God became human so that the human could become divine.” And that, really, is what the Christmas story is all about.
So, thanks be to God for this good news! Thanks be to God for the one who was “blessed amongst women.” And thanks be to God for the fruit of her womb: Jesus, whose Advent we await.
* Voyager 1 carries a copy of the “Golden Record”—a message from humanity to the cosmos that includes greetings in 55 languages, pictures of people and places on Earth and music ranging from Beethoven to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”