Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Born of the Virgin Mary


The Fourth Sunday of Advent now always focusses our attention upon the figure of Our Lady, Mary the Mother of Jesus and so for a few brief moments this morning we think of her. 

The great Swiss Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, used on Sundays in later life to listen to Roman Catholic sermons on the radio.  He said that he had never heard one of them on the subject of Blessed Mary. So, he mischievously quipped to Roman Catholic friends, it seems that you can manage perfectly well without her after all! 

And perhaps another word of warning, too, from S. Therese of Lisieux.  She used to complain about the sermons she so often heard on the subject of Our Lady – When I hear a sermon – she said – on the subject of Our Lady, it is very soon all ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahs’ that very quickly I have more than enough of it. 

And these two comments illustrate two very different poles of a particular kind of problem.  Barth quipped that you can manage perfectly well without her.  And sometimes Christian people do behave like that – they pay so little attention to the Blessed Virgin that it seems as if we’ve forgotten her altogether and in fact don’t really need her.  The other pole is very different, where Our Lady has become a kind of sympathetic intermediary between us and God – and along with that goes some pretty high-flown and extraordinary language of devotion.  The ‘Oohs and Ahs’ that S. Thérèse couldn’t stomach. 

Yet, strangely too, both of these poles share a common characteristic.  Both miss the point about Our Lady because both isolate her and treat her as something (or someone) apart from God’s work of Redemption.  To the Protestant Barth, Mary is an expensive and unnecessary add-on.  To the popular devotion of a certain kind of Catholicism, Mary is a more human mediator than her Son.  And both of these poles are very wrong. 

Back in the fourth century, you couldn’t be a Christian unless you named Mary as the Mother of God. But the extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin, pilgrimages to sites favoured by her appearances, sermons with Oohs and Aahs hadn’t a place in the picture then.  And the reason for this was that understanding the person of Christ fully meant understanding the person of Mary.  And understanding Mary meant understanding Christ.  Separate the two and you are in trouble.

In trouble for a whole number of reasons.  First of all, what did God become in Jesus?  Well, the answer is, of course, man.  But man only exists in the two sexes of male and female – which is part of what it means for us to be made in the image of God.  Just as ‘man’ exists only in the opposition and interdependence of the two sexes, God exists, as Trinity,  in the opposition and interdependence of paternal, filial and spiritual relationship and behaviour, without domination or inequality.  So from the outset, if God is to become man, then there will be involvement of  child-bearing woman.  And the one chosen, Blessed Mary, will have an eternal significance in God’s redemptive plan. 

But before we get to the Oohs and Aahs, let’s remember what this means.  Today’s Gospel has Mary running off to find sanctuary with her cousin Elizabeth.  This is an unexpected and incomprehensible pregnancy.  How shall this be Mary asks the angel since I am a virgin?  Perhaps she is a consecrated virgin.  Such existed in the religious communities around Galilee at the time.  She had given her life to God through promising not to have children.  And now look what was happening – God was asking her to bear his own Son! 

There is much truth in this picture for us to contemplate.  So often in our lives we believe we are led to something, and we make our choices, commit ourselves to a state of life, or a course of action or whatever.  And then we discover that God is actually saying something else to us.  And by that I don’t mean whispering in our ear, or giving us a vision.  But rather he speaks as he spoke to Mary – in a way which asks us to respond totallyBody, mind and spirit.  Because we find that something unexpected has happened to us, something that we couldn’t have planned, almost certainly couldn’t or more likely would not have wished – but that here is where God wants our response, our heart, our being. 

And because Mary assented to God’s call and bore Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God to the world, then we are able with her and by the redemption wrought by her Son to assent to God’s calling in us, too. 

Which is why we call her Mother of the Church, Mother of all Christian People, as well as Mother of God, Mother of the Lord.  She is a potent symbol of the Church. 

Contemplating the life of Blessed Mary is of vital importance within the Christian life, within the life of the Church, for to neglect her is to neglect the humanity in which God was born.  That humanity is only experienced as a male-female polarity – that’s the way it is.  (And yes, I am aware that for some the polarity is impaired but you just don’t get into the world without it!)  Mary’s place in the Church is not as an effete plaster statue, but as a full-blooded mother of the Son of God.  Her femininity is as vital to the health of the Church as is the masculinity of her Son. 

The Church without this Marian grace, without our contemplation of Mary, is one full of purpose, activity, structures, pressure groups, commissions, statistics, strategies.  The Church with Mary is one where these things find their true place within a community where meaning rather than purpose is the important thing.  The meaning which we discover in the purpose-less love between the sexes.  The meaning for which Mary, in pondering all these things in her heart, encourages us to seek.  The Church without Mary ultimately becomes a sterile, functional, enterprise, with lots of purpose but no meaning.  With her, we rediscover our humanity – its warmth, its humour, its full potential to love and sacrifice.  But she doesn’t ask attention for herself.  So at the wedding in Cana – Whatever he tells you to do – she says of her Son – do it.  Always she directs our attention away from herself and towards her Son.

That Marian grace is very much a necessity for the Church – and not least her leaders.