The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest may say two prayers over the bread and wine immediately following their placement on the altar. In these prayers, the bread is called the fruit of the earth, the wine, the fruit of the vine; both are identified as having been received through the goodness of God, and both are called “the work of human hands.” This understanding, what I’ll call the “offertory posture,” positions us and our labors as intertwined with God’s own goodness and creativity. Our work, and the fruit of it, is also the fruit of God’s creation, and anything we create is to be viewed as coming ultimately from God, and offered back to God. This reciprocity of giving involves continuous interchange between God and his people.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2; Psalm 37:28-36; Matthew 22:23-32
When we brothers were on pilgrimage to the UK a little over a year ago, we stayed at Keble College while in Oxford. Among the prominent features of Keble College is its chapel. It is not that there is anything outstanding in its architecture that makes it stand out, but rather, once you walk through the doors you are thrown into a sort of sensory overload, especially because all around the perimeter of the chapel are beautiful, multi-colored mosaics. Once you get over the initial shock and begin to study the mosaics, you will note that most of the scenes portrayed are from the Old Testament. You see Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, and others. It may seem odd at first to experience a Christian chapel that predominantly features scenes from the Old Testament. That is until you take a closer look and note that in each of the scenes there is a thinly veiled reference to Jesus Christ.
In the image of Noah we see a dove flying between the Ark and the rainbow, a symbol of the Holy Spirit hovering over both the waters of Creation and of the waters of Baptism. Directly below that we see in the story of Abraham the priest Melchizadek offering bread and wine, the emblematic food of the Christian, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.[i] And as you go around the chapel observing these mosaics you can see that Jesus is subtly there and that each story from the Old Testament is giving a knowing nod to the Word (sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God), who the prologue of John’s gospel says was present in the beginning with God. For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is “one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,” and, more specifically, “of the One whose presence is stored up within it.”[ii]
Recently, you may remember, I preached on The Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the Prime Holy Mystery. Today I shall add to that the additional mystery of the relationship between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
The Gospel reading tells us that at a certain point, six months after the Angel Gabriel had made his announcement to Mary, she “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
The Bible tells us that Mary set out with haste to go to Zechariah’s house in the Judean hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. We know that most people travelled in those days by foot. What we don’t know is where she was starting from, and how long it would have taken her. Do we really need to understand that?
Who is Jesus Christ? This is a question that as Christians we must ask ourselves continuously. Who is this figure that stands at the heart of our faith? There is a tendency, a perfectly natural tendency, to focus on the humanity of Jesus, to see him, as it were, merely as a better version of ourselves. Jesus the good man. Jesus the wise teacher. Jesus the political activist. The one who hates to see injustice. Whilst none of these ideas are necessarily untrue, indeed they’re all right, by their very nature they only tell half the story. They only unveil half the picture.
Our Gospel reading today helps to shine light, perhaps give us some insights, into how the divinity of Jesus is manifested in his humanity. We hear of Jesus the healer. The miracle worker. The one who in raising the sick, and elsewhere in the Gospel of raising the dead, prefigures his own resurrection with the salvific importance that event has for all of creation. We hear of Jesus the cosmic warrior who, in casting out demons, is fighting a sort of proxy war on Earth in the constant, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. We hear of Jesus Christ seated on his throne of judgment, looking forward to the end of all things when those who will dine at the heavenly banquet will be separated from those who will be cast into the outer darkness where we hear there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. We hear of Jesus the dynamic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Messiah. The Christ. The one in whom all the hopes and expectations of Israel are met.
Isaiah 52:7-10 & John 1:1-14
We are here to celebrate Christ, to rejoice and revel in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, to fall headlong into belief for the first time, or the five-thousandth time. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. As the faith of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remains to this day, the faith of the Medieval West was unabashedly sensory. Looking and touching and tasting were essential to believing, and they are even more so today.
Isaiah 52:7-10 / Psalm 98 / Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12) / John 1:1-14
It’s Christmas Day. I love Christmas – and I love singing at Christmas! Christmas is a time for singing: everyone and everything seems to be singing. Have you noticed when you are in a really good mood, or at a birthday, or you’ve just heard a wonderful piece of news, you want to sing, or ring bells, or jump up and down – you can’t help it – it’s just joy! Particularly at Christmas, the Scriptures are full of singing. Our Psalm today: “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things – lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.” And not just people, but the whole of creation: “Shout for joy all you lands, lift up your voice, rejoice and sing … let the sea make a noise, let the rivers clap their hands … let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96) At Christmas, it is as if the whole of creation is singing with joy!
Jesus said to the disciples,“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property… 29And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…” 10 Luke 16:1-13
We could easily find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending. It seems that Jesus is praising the practices of a dishonest account manager. The manager falsifies the amounts owed to his employer so that when this manager is out of a job – mind you, he’s being fired because of his dishonesty! – these same creditors with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their homes!
The Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible that counsels against putting your elbows on the table at dinner (41:19). Ecclesiasticus covers a wide swath of the human condition, from rapturous poetry in celebration of wisdom to the most mundane things, like how to behave at a dinner party. Don’t eat too much, do enjoy the wine, but don’t drink too much. Don’t interrupt the musicians. Don’t talk too much, don’t chew greedily. Don’t be the last to leave. (Ch. 31-32)
The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary;
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
Be it unto me according to your word….
Thus begins the Angelus, at Morning and Evening Prayer here in this chapel. Most of the year–we do something different in Eastertide. The Angelus is based on the passage from Luke that we’ve just heard. With the addition, the important addition, of John 1:14. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word who was with God in the beginning, who was God; the Word through whom all things came to be. The Word, the Logos, of God became human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation. The Angelus is in part a salute to the Virgin Mary and a request for her prayers. It is also a proclamation of the Incarnation and, in the concluding prayer, a concise summary of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. A good way to start the day.
Not long ago I shared with a Brother about a difficult experience and my emotions around it. This was something I had never told anyone before. Part of his empathic response was, “Luke, you’re human.” In the moment, I thought he meant the content of what I shared. But looking back, I see that it was in being vulnerable—risking to speak and be exposed—that I was most human.