Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on December 18, 2005
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Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
December 18, 2005
This account of the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary is one of those passages of scripture that give me goose bumps. The narrative invites me into mystery. When I hear this story my first desire is to ponder what sort of mystery this might be. It is no wonder this story has been such a popular subject for artists and iconographers. It is a story made for us to gaze upon with our mind's eye. This is the narrative account of the theological truth told succinctly by John the evangelist: "The Word became flesh and lived among us." Here it is. This is the moment when the divine all powerful Logos eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, of one Being with the Father, through whom all things were made poured himself out in act of self-emptying and humility because the divine nature is Love: love for the world he has made and love for us even though we had become so mired in sin and chaos of our own creation.
It is this profound love of God that is the bedrock of the Christian faith. This is what gives me joy to be a Christian. In this moment of the power of the Most High overshadowing Mary, God became knit in flesh and bone and blood because of his deep abiding love for the world created through him that bears the stamp of his image no matter how defaced that image has become by the tarnish of sin. In this moment God sets in motion the story of Jesus Christ: his lowly birth, his teaching and miracles, his saving death and resurrection and his ascension, until finally He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
I like to ponder this story in mystery because this love holds me up. When I am at my worst sometimes the grace of God breaks in and I recall this divine love. It at once wakes me up and demands of me that I return to the way that God desires for me-it is a love that calls me out of sin-but at the same time it is a love that forgives. It is a love that says, "I love you not because you are good, but because you are mine." It is in this love that transforms and forgives that I see hope for humanity. This is what the Christian faith offers: God says, I love you, and my love will transform you into what you truly are, who I made you to be-and no matter how long that transformation takes, no matter how many false starts, no matter how many wrong turns you take, I still love you.
This is why I stand in awe of this story. The gospel starts here. There is nothing but good news in Gabriel's message to Mary.
And what of Mary? Protestant Christians have long had a tenuous relationship with her. In the 16th century devotion to Mary became the theological battleground over which many Protestant versus Catholic conflicts were waged. Rome heaped glory upon glory onto Mary as if to throw down the gauntlet to image smashing Calvinists. Protestants did their best to ignore Mary as anything more than one of the heroes of the New Testament who followed Christ. I think all this wrangling has left us impoverished. Mary is special-Gabriel called her "favored one." What does that mean?
I have been doing a lot of reflection about Mary in the past few weeks. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters celebrated two major Marian festivals: the feast of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Immaculate Conception was one of those Roman Catholic things that I had a really hard time grasping. I didn't really get what it meant to say Mary was without sin from the moment of her conception. But I started thinking about it and pondering what it might mean. I think Mary is special because in her we encounter the perfect Christian. She is not perfect because she is in any way super-human. She is perfect because God favored her with perfect participation in the salvation Christ would accomplish for all humanity from the moment of her conception. It is a fitting honor for the mother of God. She is sinless not because she is better than an ordinary person, but because in her the Christian Church was born. In her, the salvation God freely offers all of us has been perfectly accepted. Mary is the first Christian: following her son, listening to him, sorrowing over his sorrows, standing at his cross, witnessing his resurrection, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And it all begins with Mary's response to the angelic greeting: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
Because Mary had the grace to say 'Yes' to God so fully, she had the eternal Logos enthroned in her womb. She carried God perfectly her whole life. Mary is a model for us of how to open our lives to the love that God so longs to lavishly bestow on us. She invites us to listen to her Son, to contemplate his teaching, to praise God for his wondrous acts, to cling to his cross, and to know the power of his resurrection. Mary always points to her Son, teaching us how to enthrone him in our hearts in the same way he is enthroned in her forever. Amen.
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