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Thursday, August 15, 2013


The titles the Church has given to St. Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, suggest not only who Mary is but speak a truth about who we are, and the honor given her by God is an honor we also share.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the feast of St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord; text: Luke 1:46-55

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

 “O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises: ‘Alleluia!’
Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord: ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!’”

The English Hymnal of 1906, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer, is a seminal and important work in the life of the Church at large, not just the English church, and has given us rich hymnody in our own Lutheran worship books.  These words, which we sang at the start of our liturgy, were first sung from this hymnal, and were composed by J. Athelstan Riley, who was the chair of the hymnal’s editorial board.  Riley, in turn, based this particular stanza on ancient Eastern Orthodox prayers to St. Mary, the mother of our Lord, prayers which are still sung in Orthodox churches today.

There is something subversive about these words when they are included in Lutheran books of worship, as they have been since 1958 in this country, and when they’re sung by Lutherans who are dismissive of giving any special honor to Jesus’ mother, who might consider it too Roman Catholic, whatever that means.  Because this entire second stanza is about Mary, calling her “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” and inviting her, now, to lead the heavenly host in praise of the Triune God.  The hymn assumes she holds an elevated status, reminds us that she bore the eternal Word, and works on the premise that she now leads the praises of God in heaven.

That we sing such praise of a human being leads us to consider what we mean by it.  The Church, especially in the East, names Mary “Theotokos,” God-bearer, for she carried the very Son of God in her womb.  Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, when they pray to her, call her “Mary, full of grace,” and around the Church, save in most Protestant circles, she is thought of as “Regina Coeli,” the “Queen of Heaven.”  All of these names are referred to in our hymn stanza which perhaps many of us have sung without knowing what we were singing.

In our tradition we have only recently been coming back to an understanding of why the Church in so many places has honored Mary above all others, a sense which the Lutheran Reformers always had, but which subsequent generations of Lutherans in many places let fall to the side of the road.

Those same reformers suggested that the saints are a gift to us in at least three ways: they cause us to give thanks to God for showing us such examples of divine mercy; our faith is strengthened when we see the grace of God acting in their lives; and lastly, we learn to imitate their faith and any other of their virtues. [1]

In these three things, our question deepens.  What do we mean when we sing such praise of Mary?  And what does it mean for our lives, our faith, our discipleship?  The answer seems to be circular in nature: when we praise Mary thus, we eventually come to see ourselves in her, and our lives as hers.

We begin with Theotokos, God-bearer, “thou bearer of the eternal Word.”

There is a profound reality about Mary that is almost impossible for us to comprehend and that is utterly unique: she is the only human being to have been physically joined to the Triune God, carrying in her very womb the child who is fully human and fully divine.

Whatever we might think of her, this truth, that she is Theotokos, has to be central.  There is in Mary a human being like no other.  Little wonder that the Church saw in her a link, a connection with God: one of us, yet one with better inroads.

While her son, Christ Jesus our Lord, is the Incarnate Word in our midst, and the One who brings humanity into relationship with the Triune God, Mary is the first of us to experience this relationship, the first of us to know this, and the only one of us to physically live this.  And for that we rightly honor her and think well of her.

In her “let it be with me according to your will,” she welcomed God’s grace into her humanity and brought the possibility of life in Christ to us all.  This generosity of sharing, this gift to the world is forever to be praised.

And yet, as we look at her and consider what her son has taught us and brought to us, we realize this truth: she is not the only God-bearer.

The witness of Christ himself, the witness of the Scriptures, and the witness of the Church for 2,000 years is that we are baptized into Christ so that we in turn bear Christ in the world.  Not physically, growing a child inside our bodies through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But physically, living with the Holy Spirit transforming us literally from within into people who in our bodies, words, hands, lives, love, grace are Christ, are divine children, are, like Mary, invited to generously share Christ with the world.

In Mary we see ourselves: we are God-bearers to the world, we bring the news of God’s love which death cannot destroy, God’s grace which is sufficient to cover all our brokenness, God’s life which is for the whole world.

And Mary is also “full of grace,” “most gracious” in our hymn.

There is an obvious reference here: in carrying Christ Jesus in her womb, she was literally full of God’s grace, God’s Incarnate Grace.

But in her person, her willingness to do this, her hymn of praise which not only magnified the Lord but the Lord’s gracious overturning of the world, she models for us a life of grace.

She feels the pain of a family who isn’t wealthy enough to have enough wine for their party and brings it to her son, that he might do something.

She feels the grace of God in coming to this world through her and sees the possibility of God graciously raising up the lowly, feeding the hungry, and bringing justice through her work.

And she lovingly brings this child to adulthood that he might be the Life of the world in his death and resurrection, facing that horror and subsequent joy alongside us and waiting with his disciples for the coming of the Spirit 50 days later.

But of course as we see all this grace in her, we are reminded that it is ours as well, that God has so filled us with grace.  Just as we are bearers of Christ, we are vessels of grace in this world.

Blessed by the presence of God, we become that presence in the world.  Overwhelmed by the forgiveness of God, we offer that forgiveness to the world.  Transformed by the grace of God, we are part of God’s continuing gracious transforming of the world.

In Mary we see ourselves, full of grace, given to the world.

And because she is who she is and did what she did, she is “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” we sing.

We are not privy to the mysteries of God’s heavenly domain, though we live in the kingdom as it lives here with us on earth.  But we cannot help but think of Mary as this hymn does.

Is there any other human being or angel who did what she did, lived what she lived, gave what she gave?  If in fact there are people who are lifted up in praise around the throne of God, which we cannot know for certain, we likewise cannot think of another who would be higher.

And yet when we sing the words of Psalm 8 we are reminded that David saw all of humanity, all of us as a little lower than the angels.

So in one sense when we sing this of Mary we sing it with a little confusion.  It is truly a noble place to be just lower than the angels: who are we, we say with the psalmist, that God would so honor us?  Yet higher?  Can we say that?

Yet what Mary teaches us most of all is that we do not claim such honor, nor does she.  It may be well for the Church to sing it of Mary: it would be unseemly and ungallant not to honor her.  But her gracious “yes” to God, her hymn of praise, her life lived in service to her son, our Lord, was not a life of being above others.

Everything about her that we know from Scriptures is that she lived as she sang in those words which formed our Gospel tonight: she saw herself in this call of God not an exalted queen but a humble servant through whom she was blessed to bear God’s healing for the world.

And in Mary we see ourselves, not as exalted, but as lowly, not as higher, but as servant.

And so the mystery of Mary is the mystery of us.

In living as humble servants of Christ, bearing God’s love and presence into the world, we, like Mary, are privileged to see the wonders of God come to pass through us.  We are astonished to see that as flawed and broken as we are we are not only healed and loved, but through us God is reaching the world.

For us, on this day we honor Mary what we sing of her calls us to our true selves.  There is deep mystery here, much we cannot grasp.  Even as Mary needed to ponder things in her heart, so too do we.

Yet our sister Mary shows us a way to unutterable joy, that in us God is coming to this world, and through us, mystery of mysteries, wonder of wonders, God will continue to heal and save this world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1]  Article XXII, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), and parallel article in The Augsburg Confession (1530)

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