Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Proper B  ~  December 21, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


Behold, the Handmaid of the Lord!


+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,


The angel announces a number of impossibilities to Mary. We only think of one – the one that she zeroed in on “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”  But he also asked her to believe that her Son would be a king and that His reign would last forever! She would conceive by the Holy Spirit and just to prove it, her cousin Elizabeth had conceived in her old age and the barren one was now in the sixth month of her pregnancy. From the beginning, Christianity is about impossible things happening.  The fact that they are impossible is not a defect in Christianity, it is the point of Christianity.

            Our faith is all about the promises of God and their fulfillment.  We expect that which cannot be expected ~ or even imagined. Just as Mary is asked to do. That is one reason we regard the Bl. Virgin Mary as the archetype of the Church, par excellence. Mary represents the Church in her willingness to believe the impossible, to expect the fulfillment of God’s promises, to consent to their fulfillment whatever the cost to her personally, and to help God, voluntarily, to fulfill them. That will, expectation, and consent are all hallmarks of the Church. So also is pregnancy. As the BVM carried the Godman in her body, so does the Church. Within this Body, we also conceive the Incarnate God, in all the fullness of His humanity as well as His divinity, really present in us in the secret chambers of inner life of our Divine Liturgy. We also bring Him forth into the world, where we proclaim the Kingdom of the Word Made Flesh. The Kingdom of His ancestor David that will have no end.

            But we are His Body, also. Within the womb of the Church, we are formed into a New Creature ~ humanity in the image of Triune God, Who said in the Beginning “Let US make humanity in OUR own image.”  The One of Whom we are the image is a multipersonal Society, in separable but unconfused. This New Creation takes shape in the amniotic waters of Baptism, and struggles through the travail of centuries – maybe even millennia – to be Born Again, to be Born Anew, to be Born, as Christ said to Nicodemus,  from Above.  For if the Church is the Body of Christ, we are also the World, the New Creation, the New Heaven and the New Earth. The Church is the cosmos.

            That is the other way Mary is a figure of the Church: she too represents the earth, the creation, the whole created order, now in obedience and coöperation with God, instead of rebellion. And like her, the Church is not merely instrumental, but an end in itself. Mary, the humble provincial girl, is the pinnacle of  the Hebrew religious tradition ~ the end toward which the whole holy history  had been pointed, up to the Sixth Month in which the Angle Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. From ancient times, she has been called “spotless”, amolentos, bezistlennaya, immaculate. And this refers not only to her virginity, but to the purity that God nurtured in Israel, preparing humanity to receive Him. In a way, God couldn’t have come before she was ready. Or rather, maybe He could have, but no one would have known about it. The human imagination and will had to be prepared for it to matter. That is what Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God represents. I like to think that any number of Jewish girls could have fulfilled that role. Mary wasn’t alone. There was Elizabeth, for example, the joyful recipient of another impossible pregnancy. But only one of those girls could actually do it.

As a Roman Catholic dogma, the Immaculate Conception is an innovation, because in order to accept it one has to accept the Augustinian view of Original Sin. Furthermore, it makes Mary metaphysically unique and unlike the rest of us. But a less juridical and more cosmic view of her spotlessness involves the process of preparation that went on for centuries and millennia in the meaningful history of salvation, beginning with Creation itself and culminating in that Sixth month in Nazareth, 2000 years ago, when Creation, conscious of itself and of God, said “YES”.  All glory be to God because His Immaculate Mother is exactly like us, not because she is different from us by special dispensation!

So the BVM represents the religious tradition of Israel and the Church which is the New Israel and the New Jerusalem. She also represents the whole Creation: the New Eve undoing the calamitous disobedience of our common mother. She is the culmination of the history of salvation. But she is not the conclusion of it. She is a crucial turning-point, but not the final consummation. She is the Mother of Christ, so she is the Mother of His earthly Body, but also of His Mystical Body, the Church. And the Church is destined by God to become the Creation she typifies. It is the Mission of the Body of Christ to incorporate the whole universe, so that God may be All-in-All: the cosmos transfigured, become His Body.  To say so is not some comical triumphalism or cultural imperialism, but we do well to be careful about proclaiming that we know the content of this Cosmic New Jerusalem. We do not know. We trust the promise ~ the promise of the impossible coming true.

But we will, I think, recognize its contours: it will be something like a weak, inconsequential, vulnerable country girl ~ pregnant out of wedlock ~ enthroned above the cherubim by her Royal Son, Who has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, who has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek, who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.