Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

This is the transcript of my sermon for today, the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is now nine months to Christmas! There are several Marian feasts in the Church’s year. These are feasts when we think of our Lady. There is much controversy surrounding each of them. With some of the feasts, the controversy is very much on party lines: Roman Catholic divides against Protestant and Protestant against Roman Catholic. With today’s feast, however, the controversy isn’t simply between Roman Catholic and Protestant, but within Protestantism itself. Many in the Protestant wing of the Church today reject the very idea that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.

Mary has, in other words, become a figure in the Church that people divide over. This division is reflected in the various commentaries on our Gospel reading for today. A commentary, especially by a scholar, is meant primarily to examine and explain the text. It is interesting, however, reading the commentaries, to see how the different writers treat St Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Leaving aside, in other words, all the later developments, arguments, and divisions in the Church over Mary, what can we learn about Mary and the Annunciation from the text itself?

Interestingly, the commentaries reflect the same divisions that exist between believers. They basically fall in two camps.

First, there is the approach of those who, in explaining the text, go out of their way to play down Mary’s role. They stress that the emphasis when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary is not on Mary herself, but on the child whom she will conceive and give birth to. They point to the words of the Angel Gabriel who said:

‘He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (Luke 1:32-33)

If the Angel Gabriel, when he spoke to Mary, focused on the child to be born, those taking this approach argue, then so should we. As they are quick to point out: we follow Jesus, not Jesus and Mary.

Secondly, completely opposite to this, is the approach of those who see Mary’s role, not only as important, but as absolutely pivotal. Roman Catholic scholars particularly, but not exclusively, point to what is called Mary’s ‘fiat’. This is the Latin word for what in English is ‘let it be done unto me’. It is stressed that Mary’s is entirely a voluntary act. Mary could have refused or expressed doubt in the way that Zechariah did when the same Angel told him his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive in old age despite being infertile (Luke 1:18). But no, Mary responded willingly and accepted the role that was given to her.

These two approaches to the text itself, of course, reflect the two most common approaches amongst believers to our Lady herself, and I confess to getting more than a little irritated by both.

Firstly, those who take the second approach often talk as if the salvation of the world was entirely dependent on whether Mary said ‘Yes’ to the Angel Gabriel or not. All God’s purposes and plans, everything he had been doing before this from creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, seems to depend on what Mary would say at this one point in time. Of course, if you believe this, it becomes hard not to believe that there was something very special and holy about Mary herself, and once you believe that then much else that many believe about Mary follows from it.

If all God’s plans really are dependent on what Mary says in this single moment, then it is unlikely, to say the least, that God would not have done all that he could to prepare Mary beforehand for this supremely important moment. And given how central her ‘fiat’ is on this approach to God’s plan, then surely God would want to continue to use her afterwards?

In response to this approach, I would look to the words of John the Baptist:

‘for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’ (Luke 3:8)

To put it in purely human terms, if Mary had not consented, then doubtless God could have found someone who would. Presumably, God did indeed know what he was doing in choosing Mary, but for us to make God’s plans dependent on any human, man or woman, agreeing to them is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Of course, in our focus on Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God there is something more going on here. Consent, and a woman’s consent especially, has become a big issue with the #metoo movement, and rightly so. We are naturally sensitive to any suggestion that Mary, as a woman, was coerced and forced into a role. It is right that we take the issue of consent seriously. But the concern of many here is not simply about consent, but about credit.

Yes, Mary willingly accepts the role that God has for her, but we want to go further than that and give her credit for doing so. And behind this desire to give Mary credit, there lies our desire to give credit to ourselves when we do something for God. If Mary, who does this amazing thing gets no credit for it, then what hope is there for us? But if Mary gets credit for her service, then maybe, we hope, we will get credit for ours as well. It’s credit for me too that we seek.

We tell ourselves: ‘I have consented to believe in God and follow Christ. I too have consented to serve him. I deserve recognition for the good I have done.’ We reassure ourselves that God will take our goodness and service of him into account and reward us for it.

All I can say is that if we are planning to depend on our goodness when we meet God, then God help us. And before Protestants get all excited and say this is what they have been saying all along and point to how since the reformation they have argued that we are justified by faith, not works, I would just say that, for many Protestants, faith itself sounds remarkably like a work. Many are proud of the fact that they have faith, that they have believed the Gospel, and that they have put their trust in Christ. They thank God that they are ‘not like other men’ who have not. We may not seek credit for what we do, but, all too often, we do seek credit for what we believe. It is as if God should be grateful to us for believing in him and serving him. Jesus specifically warns his followers against this sort of attitude:

‘So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, “We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what we were supposed to do.”’ (Luke 17:10)

Mary herself, however, rejects this desire for credit and claims no credit for herself. In the first words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, words which are printed on our altar frontal, Mary says:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’ (Luke 1:46-48)

Mary’s response is a model of consent. God is to be praised for giving us the privilege of being able to serve him, not us for serving him. God, in his mercy, doesn’t treat either Mary or us as robots with no will of our own. Although God has, as Jesus tells us, every right to demand our obedience, he instead invites our consent and response to his call, but more than that he makes it possible for us to consent and respond to him in the first place. Jesus said:

‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.’ (John 6:44)

Knowing that there are those who do not believe in him, Jesus emphasizes what he has said:

‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’ (John 6:65)

Mary is despised by some for being not only a model of consent, but also for being what they see as a model of passivity. We prefer our role models to be active, independent, spirited, and even aggressive. We hold in high regard people who know what they want and go all out to get it. But that’s our problem, and that’s what originally caused our problem. It is our determined disobedience and rebellion that made it necessary for God to send his Son to die for us.

The same passivity that Mary showed in accepting God’s will, and in her willing obedience to it, was shown by her Son. As St Paul tells us:

‘And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:7-8)

So, let this be an end to all thought of giving credit to ourselves, let us instead be like Mary who, in accepting God’s will, got on with doing it, not only giving birth to Jesus, but standing with him as he died on the Cross. Like him, she too was obedient unto death.

Secondly, those who take the first approach go out of their way to play down Mary’s role. It is as if all God wanted of Mary was her womb. Not only do they give no credit to Mary, they barely mention her and seek to write her out of the story as soon as they can. If, however, God was willing to honour Mary, so should we. Mary was not special in and of herself. She was simply a young girl living in an obscure village. But although not special, just as we are not special, she became special because of God’s grace and choice of her.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth is overwhelmed. St Luke tells us:

‘And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’’ (Luke 1:43)

Before this Mary was her relative. Mary was just at child-bearing age while Elizabeth herself was way beyond it. Mary, then, would be expected to defer to and show respect to Elizabeth as the older woman, but, because of God’s choice of Mary to be the Mother of his Son, the roles have been reversed. Now as the ‘theotokos’, the Mother of God, Mary is not only special, but worthy of honour.

Mary, again in the Magnificat, says, ‘Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed …’ (Luke 1:48). We do call her blessed. And in honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary, we honour the God who chose her. But honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary shouldn’t stop there. We honour her that she believed when the priest doubted. Elizabeth, as the wife of the priest who doubted, says:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)

It is ironic that it is often those who refuse to give honour to the Blessed Virgin Mary who are the very ones who give great honour to St Paul. St Paul should indeed be honoured and respected. We should, as believers, seek to follow his example as he encourages us to (1 Corinthians 4:16). But surely, then, we should honour the Mother of our Lord and seek to follow her example of trust and obedience.

We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary for her faithfulness and service: for the shame and disgrace she suffered as a result, so that initially the man she was betrothed to wanted to get rid of her. We honour her for her commitment in bearing Jesus, raising him, following him, standing by him, and believing in him becoming, as Jesus ordained from the Cross, the mother of those believe in him (John 19:27).

The Blessed Virgin’s Mary’s fiat, her response of faith, should be ours too: ‘let it be unto me according your word’. Today, as we celebrate the Annunciation, we think ahead, not to the event that we will remember in nine months at Christmas, but to the one we will remember in nine days at Easter, when, as she watched her Son die, ‘a sword pierced her own soul too’ (Luke 1:35).

As, then, the Blessed Virgin Mary accepted God’s Son into her life, may we accept him into ours, and, by honouring her, honour her Son, our Lord.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


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