“Blessed Mary” (Luke 1:39-55)
Many Lutherans get a little uncomfortable when you start talking too much about Mary the Mother of Our Lord. It’s all about her Son, right? Our neighbors connected to Rome set aside August 15 to commemorate the day when Mary was taken bodily into heaven. They call it “The Assumption of Mary.” Only one problem. The Bible doesn’t teach this. As heirs of the Reformation, we’re all about Sola Scriptura … Scripture Alone. If it’s not in the Bible, then we don’t teach it.
But the Bible does say this: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb … blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” That was from the lips of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. And Mary herself said, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” So we do set aside a day, not to worship Mary nor to pray to her, but to give thanks to God for what he did through her. Moreover, in Mary we see a model of simple, humble faith and a picture of the Church, which is blessed through the blessing that Mary brought into the world.
“Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth said. As the mother of the Savior, Mary was indeed honored among all women who ever lived. She was chosen for this special role by God’s grace. The angel who came to announce that Mary would be the Mother of the Savior said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30) What brought this favor? Was there something in Mary that caused God to choose her, some aspect of her character? The Bible doesn’t tell us. All it says is that it was due to God’s grace, his undeserved favor towards sinful human beings. And Mary was a sinful human being, too, chosen by grace to be the one through whom the Son of God took on human flesh.
In this way, you and I are much like Mary. Those who are baptized into Mary’s Son and who trust in him for salvation are chosen by grace. There was nothing in our nature or character that caused God to choose us. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Our sinful nature should cause God to want to send us away from him and his love forever. “But,” as St. Paul writes, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2:4-5)
In the Magnificat, the song of Mary which the Church still sings in the liturgy, Mary describes how God likes to turn things upside down. While the world pays attention to the high and mighty and overlooks the poor and the oppressed, the Lord “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low estate.” He did this in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. In the eyes of the world, Mary was insignificant. She was the young bride-to-be of a poor carpenter from a backwater town. And who would believe the story that an angel came to her and told her that, although she was a virgin, she would become pregnant? Enemies of Christianity have mocked Mary, too, claiming that she was an adulterous woman, that the real father of Jesus was a Roman soldier who seduced her, or other such lies. Humbled in the eyes of the world, Mary was exalted in the eyes of God. In her song, she recalls how “he who is mighty has done great things for me.” He graciously lifted her up to her high status as the Mother of God, a title she carries because of the divine nature of her Son.
Like Mary, the Church has seen its share of mockery and slander. Believers in Jesus have endured all kinds of persecution over the centuries. But unlike Mary, some of the treatment the Church has received has been well-deserved. The Church is made up of sinners. You are indeed defiled because of your sin. The term virgin is not suitable for you. You have been adulterous in the ways in which you have consorted with the gods of material wealth, success, popularity, beauty, youth, and convenience, among other modern gods with a small “g.” And even if you have had none of this, you have still coveted it. But in spite of your sin, you are also exalted in the eyes of God. You are declared holy and virgin-pure through the great things the Mighty One has done for you … shedding his blood at the cross for you, forgiving you all your sins, and leading you into repentant trust. Made holy through the blood of Christ, the Church has been prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. That’s the picture the Psalmist gives us in today’s Gradual: “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following her.” (Psalm 45:13-14) The robe of Christ’s righteousness has been placed upon you. You have been prepared for the great wedding banquet in heaven, where Jesus is the Bridegrom and his Church is the bride.
“Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth declared, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The angel came to Mary and gave her God’s Word of promise that she would be the mother of the Savior. We call this event “The Annunciation.” The Holy Spirit worked through that Word and miraculously conceived the baby Jesus in his mother’s womb. Christian artists over the years understood this quite well. You see many depictions of the Annunciation where the angel is speaking to Mary. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove floats overhead. Coming from its beak is a beam of light shining right into Mary’s ear. Other paintings show God the Father above, with a beam of light, or even words coming from his mouth directly to Mary’s ear. Nine months later, Mary gave birth to the Christ in the stable of Bethlehem.
In a similar way, the Church now miraculously conceives and gives birth to Christians. The Church becomes the womb in which people are born again through Water and the Word of God. The Holy Spirit works through that Word, enters the ears and goes straight to the heart and creates faith, as Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Believers in Christ are nurtured and nourished here with the milk of God’s Word. St. Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” (1 Pet. 2:2) Believers in Christ are fed here with the bread of life. Jesus said of himself, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:48) The Christ who rose again on Easter is present with his people today, giving his body to eat and his blood to drink in the Sacrament of the Altar, as St. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And then, Elizabeth says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is a model for us of pure, receptive faith. Faith is not a force or a power which is used to get what you want or to manipulate God, however sanctified you think your motivation is. Faith simply receives what God gives. It takes God at his word.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth was given faith to know who the Child in Mary’s womb was. She called Mary “the mother of my Lord.” And John, while still in Elizabeth’s womb, heard Mary’s greeting, and in faith leaped for joy over the news of the coming birth of the Savior. Mary, too, recognized her need and rejoiced in her Savior. She sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She knew that although she had been blessed beyond her wildest dreams, she was still a sinner in need of forgiveness.
Mary had simple, humble trust in God and his promises. Did she know exactly how this was all going to work out? I don’t know. You can imagine the questions that were running through her mind. “What will Joseph have to say about all this? Will he believe my story? Or will he hand me over to be stoned, supposing I am guilty of adultery? What will my family and my neighbors say about me?”
Later on, there would have been other questions. “Why is King Herod trying to kill my Son? What did Simeon mean when he said that ‘a sword will pierce through your own soul also’?” (Luke 2:35) “What pain am I going to have to face over my Son? Why did my son leave his job in Nazareth to become this itinerant preacher, with great crowds following him? Maybe he’s out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)
And then, on Good Friday … “Why is it necessary for my sweet, perfect Child to have to die such a brutal death? I can hardly bear to watch, but I can’t leave him, either.” (Matt. 27:56)
These are questions which would challenge anyone’s faith. Yet God was working behind the scenes in all these painful events of Mary’s life to save the world … to save you and me … from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.
You don’t know how things are going to work out in your life, either. None of us knows from moment to moment when the foundations of our life will crumble, when the rug is going to be pulled out from underneath us. Maybe it’s already happened for some of you.
Your loving, merciful Heavenly Father is working behind the scenes and promises to work all things out for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his purposes. (Rom. 8:28) You can trust that promise completely, because God already worked for your good when, in the fullness of time he sent forth his Son, born of Mary, to redeem you, to adopt you as his son, giving you the Spirit of his Son so you can call God your Father, and making you an heir of heaven. (Gal. 4:4-7)
May our Father in heaven grant us the same simple, humble trust that Blessed Mary had in his gracious promises.