A WORTHY HOME FOR CHRIST TO DWELL
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON December 5th 2010
Isaiah 11:1”There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and
a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
On this Second Sunday of Advent, the first reading presents us with a prophecy about the Messiah, he shall be from the stock of Jesse. That is, he would be a descendent of the great King David. St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, was of the line of David. That is why he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census. Bethlehem was the city of David. Joseph was of his line, so that is where they had to go to be counted. Thus Joseph fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah. But in a way, it was not fulfilled – because Jesus was not biologically the son of Joseph; Joseph was his stepfather.
Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary entirely through the work of the Holy Spirit. “And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man“. For this statement in the Creed, we drop to our knees in reverence and awe.
The virgin birth does fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah. The prophecy says, “A shoot from the stump of Jesse.”
A stump is something almost dead. It is the remnant of a flourishing tree. It evokes an image of emptiness and bareness – like the womb of Mary. A shoot from a stump can sometimes appear miraculously. Mary is integral to the Incarnation. Fot that she is honored by Christians. “All generations shall call me blessed,” she said. They have called her blessed, and we still do.
Yet, sometimes honoring Mary can be seen as going too far. The devotion at the shrine of Our Lady Guadalupe in Mexico City sometimes seems like idolatry. If you’d been to Europe and seen a statue of Mary carried around, adorned with jewelry and flowers, it can seem excessive.
We Episcopalians walk a fine line in regard to Marian devotion. Some parishes ignore her completely. It’s as if she never existed! Others, like ours, are more enthusiastic. Perhaps we make up for the neglect of other parishes. Every child who attended All Saints’ Day School learned to say the Angelus. We are probably the only parish in the Diocese that says it in public worship.
Perhaps this Episcopalian ambivalence about the Blessed Virgin is a result of the Reformation, when the Church of England broke away from Rome. It was a time when the old Catholic practices seemed to have been done away with, although many have been restored to our churches.
Some of you may recall a movie called, Elizabeth, about ten years ago. It starred the great Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, playing the role of Queen Elizabeth the First.
The movie started in great dramatic fashion with the burning of bishops – an idea I sometimes find attractive!! The movie portrayed the horror and tumult that occurred during the Reformation period, although it was not historically accurate. It did however portray the troubled times of the period, and the Elizabethan Settlement. That was when, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, the Church of England estabished the tradition of liturgy and teaching that we know today. We refer to the language in which we worship as Elizabethan language, because it came from those days.
Queen Elizabeth the First began her reign as a young woman who seemed to be both protestant and catholic – like the Episcopal Church. There is a scene I remember well from the movie. It was after she had ascended to the throne. Elizabeth was in her private chapel, no doubt pondering what lay ahead. As she looked at the statue of Mary in her chapel she muttered aloud, “They have replaced you.”
What she meant was that they had replaced Mary with her in the hearts of her people. They had a new virgin to honor, and perhaps even worship. This sentiment was emphasized later in the movie when, reflecting on her role as the woman who was to unite the people of England, one of her advisors said, “Men need to touch the divine.” The implication was that Queen Elizabeth the First was the new virgin queen, through whom the men and women of England would be able to touch the divine.
Men need to touch the divine. That, of course, is the principal of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, when Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, the human race could touch the divine, could see the divine. But it is through Mary that men and woman touch the divine – not an English queen.
It’s interesting that although devotion to Mary was downplayed at the time of the reformation, if not obliterated for a while, the calendar in the Church of England Book of Common Prayer retained a number of feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary: The Annunciation, her birth, her purification, her visitation to Elizabeth, and her conception.
All these commemorations were kept in the Prayer Book because all of them are to do with the incarnation. Anything to do with the Virgin Mary is about preparing for the incarnation. It’s significant because all the other Saints, the men and women in the calendar, have just one feast day, usually the day they died, called their ‘heavenly birthday.’ The exception was John the Baptist, who had both his birth and his death commemorated. Because John the Baptist is also connected to the Incarnation, and draws our attention to it.
Because of Mary’s importance, she had no less than five feast days. This Wednesday we celebrate her conception. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary’s conception was Immaculate, an interesting word. There is some confusion as to what this might mean.
The 1854 Papal Declaration, when this doctrine was defined for Catholics, says (and I translate from the Latin), “From the moment of her conception, the Blessed Virgin Mary, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and through the merits of Christ our Savior, was kept free from original sin.”
This requires some reflection and some theological understanding. Can we determine anything about Mary that is not in scripture?
As a simple Episcopal Priest, what this doctrine and teaching says to me is that the grace which we received at baptism, when original sin was washed away, was received by Mary at her conception, because she was not baptized.
To put it simply, Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Emmanuel, God with us. She was made a worthy home for him to dwell. This doctrine is not a matter of acquired assent in our church. But we do hold up Blessed Mary in honor and love, as mother of the Savior, who was a worthy home in which to dwell.
The fact that Mary’s conception was in the calendar of our Church means it must have been a special conception. Why else would you celebrate it? The only other conception in the calendar is Our Lord’s. What we call the feast of the Annunciation.
Really, all conceptions are a miracle of God. All of us, conceived and born, have been chosen by God.
Mary was chosen by God. She was chosen for a special and unique vocation. But all of us have been chosen by God. Vocation is not about activity, or doing things. Mary’s conception tells us that vocation is simply about being what we are, offering who we are to God.
That is what Mary’s conception teaches us – not only as individuals, but as a people. As the people of God we have a unique vocation, like Mary. St. Paul sums it up in today’s epistle, Romans 15:5-6:
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with once voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”