Micah 5:2-5a; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 1:18-25
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of a few Marian Feasts that is revered by some and viewed with suspicion by others. It is a Feast that is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions, but is not in most other mainline protestant traditions. The reason for this is complicated, but in brief Medieval Divines insisted that in terms of Marian devotion there be a distinction between hyperdulia and latria; hyperdulia meaning ‘strong reverence,’ and latria meaning ‘worship,’ which belonged to God alone. However, the line between hyperdulia and latria, between reverence and worship was often easily blurred and Marian devotion sometimes slid into what was termed “Mariolatry.”[i] On a personal note, I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant tradition in which hyperdulia AND latria were blasphemous and those who did any of that were a part of the ‘cult of Mary!’
The Protestants of the sixteenth century were greatly upset by this blurring of boundaries and the Church of England joined the fight against Marian feasts which were eventually excluded from the church calendar. A decade later, Elizabeth I reinstituted both the Feast of the Assumption and the Feast of the Nativity of the BVM, which were marked as ‘black-letter days’ in the Prayer Book of 1662, meaning the feasts were kept but were not obligatory, a fine example of the ‘via media’ or middle way that is such a fixture of Anglicanism.[ii] While another feast, the Feast of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ of Mary (the idea that Mary was conceived without the blemish of sin) is a little more of a slippery slope theologically and a debate best saved for another day, we here can safely assume without the confirmation of scripture that indeed Mary had a birthday; a day when she showed up on the scene in the normal way, just as we all do, of no volition of her own. And from that moment, with the help of her mother and father, family, and friends, began her own pilgrimage on this earth; a life that at the outset seemed ordinary but as the gospel writers tell us, took a turn towards the extraordinary.
After I first arrived at the monastery over three and a half years ago, I remember taking a bus from South Station up to Emery House to spend a Sabbath. As we were pulling out of the station, I looked out of the window at the surrounding city scene and time seemed to freeze for a moment. As I gazed up at the tall buildings a question popped into my mind: How in the world did I end up here? How did a musician from East Tennessee, who has lived his whole life in the south, and who had ambitions of performing and teaching music end up in the greater Boston area testing a vocation as a monk? Have you ever had one of those moments….when life became so large, so incredibly vivid that you had to ask, “Is this real?” And then life’s “play” button is pressed again and you forge ahead, perhaps a little overwhelmed at the notion of actually retracing your steps up to that moment, and it fades unresolved. Yet you know that you just had a glimpse of something larger than life and you have to settle with the idea that time will bring clarity and as more pieces of the puzzle come together, you’ll eventually understand.
I often imagine that Mary, the mother of our Lord, had many moments like this in her life. You may know that the five lancet windows in the Lady Chapel depict the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, a set of repetitive prayers said while contemplating each mystery. I began to think that, similar to my experience, perhaps these mysteries were ‘moments of revelation’ for Mary, beginning with the Annunciation. Just as the angel Gabriel visited Joseph in our gospel lesson this evening from Matthew, Luke’s gospel records a similar visit by the angel to Mary, and at that moment her life takes a leap from the ordinary to the extraordinary; a turn that leaves her asking the question, “How can this be?”[iii] But even though overwhelmed by excitement, joy, and no small amount of fear, Mary says yes, setting in motion the events alluded to in the oracle from Micah: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient of days. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” And so, from the Annunciation, the mysteries of the rosary continue to depict moments of joy, sorrow, and glory from scripture in the life of Jesus as witnessed through the eyes of Mary his mother; each moment an icon pointing towards the love of God; a love so great that we in our finitude are only capable of catching glimpses, at least in this life.[iv]
As we celebrate Mary’s birthday, ask yourself how your experience might be like that of Mary. How have you come to know God’s light, life, and love in your life? It could be through certain experiences of pure joy such as the birth of a child, or the thrill and fear of being offered a job that is the opportunity of a lifetime. Maybe you’ve been blessed with many years of good health. If this is so, share your joy with God. Pray your Joyful Mysteries.
It could be that you’ve come to know God’s light, life, and love in your life through something that was broken; something in need of healing. Perhaps you, like Mary, have known what it is like to be helpless, out of control, and in great need of God’s provision. Maybe you’ve learned a little of what it means to have compassion, a word that literally means ‘with suffering.’ A few years ago my grandmother passed away and I was fortunate enough to be present along with my mom and my aunt (whose name happens to be Mary). I watched these strong women, who had had a complex relationship with each other over the years, forgive each other. As she slipped away, my mom and her sister told their mother that they loved her and it was okay for her to go, that they would be alright. This continues to be one of the most powerful moments in my life, a moment of compassion, which even though was sad, it was also filled with much grace. Perhaps you have had times when all you could do is turn the situation over to the loving care of God. If this so, pray your Sorrowful Mysteries.
And maybe you have known the experience of transfiguration, redemption, and resurrection in your own life. Perhaps you have known the power of God’s redeeming love and have seen healing and the restoration of life. This could be through the experience of recovery from addiction; in a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation, either with a friend or family member, yourself, or even with God. Perhaps you know the power of life and love restored. If this is so, pray your Glorious mysteries.
If you’ve never taken the time to pray your Mysteries, to recollect how God has been molding, transforming, redeeming, loving you one glimpse, one powerful yet subtle moment at a time, maybe you’d like to start today, on Mary’s birthday. And if you’re not quite sure how God may be working in your life just yet, begin with praying her mysteries, each one becoming an icon, pointing to the greater mystery of your own extraordinary life.[v]
Let us pray:
Pour your grace into our hearts O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of His resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. [vi]
[i] Reynolds, Stephen, comp. For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994. Print.
[ii] Reynolds, Stephen, comp. For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994. Print.
[iv] The Joyful Mysteries: The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-33, 35, 38); The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45); The Nativity (Luke 2:1, 3-7); The Presentation (Luke 2:25-35); The Finding in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51)
The Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony in the Garden (Luke 22:39-46); The Scourging (Mark 16:6-15); The Crowning with Thorns (Mark 15:16-20); Jesus Takes up the Cross (John 19:17; Luke 23:27-28, 32-34); The Crucifixion (John 19:25-30)
The Glorious Mysteries: The Resurrection (Mark 16:1-7); The Ascension (Acts 6:1-11); The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4); The Assumption (Revelation 12:1; 2 Timothy 4:7); The Coronation (Revelation 3:21, 19:6-10; James 1:12)
[v] Note on the Glorious Mysteries: Some people find it difficult using the Fourth and Fifth Glorious Mysteries because these do not seem to be recorded in the Gospel narrative. If this is true for you, perhaps for a time, substitute for the Fourth Glorious Mystery a brief consideration of the death in Christ of those who have fought a good fight, who have finished their course, who have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7); and , for the Fifth Glorious Mystery, reflect on those you know who, having completed their earthly pilgrimage, receive at last the Crown of Life which the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12). After doing this for a time, it may be easier to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary in connection with these two Mysteries quite naturally and sincerely.
[vi] Collect for The Annunciation (March 25) from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 240
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