by the Rev. James B. Craven III
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
That prayer, which most likely associate with the Roman branch of the Holy Catholic Church universal, was not written at the Vatican or in a medieval monastery. Rather it comes from the hand of Luke, that dear and glorious physician and historian of the early church. Remember that Luke wrote two of the New Testament books, the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. They are really one work, just arbitrarily separated, by historical and canonical accident, by the fourth Gospel, the one attributed to John.
The Gospel account from Luke today is as important as any in Scripture, and truly awesome. It is as profound an example of faith as we will find anywhere. And it must be read that way, in that light. Don’t read it for the narrative facts, as you might a newspaper article describing heaven forbid the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of the Electoral College, or the summary of a football game. Read it as a sublime act of faith that has for 2000 years affected all our lives.
Mary was engaged to Joseph, as some might put it, saving herself for him. Virgo intacto is the medical Latin term. Mary was a virgin in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. There is a little house, way underground in Nazareth, that you have to almost crawl to get into, that the local tradition tells us was the home of Joseph and Mary. Enter the angel Gabriel, and remember that angel means messenger, in this case a divine messenger, sent by God. Gabriel says “Hail Mary, the Lord is with you.” Luke tells us Mary was perplexed by this. Who wouldn’t be? Say what? Well, the angel explains, you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Imagine how Mary, a teenage girl in Nazareth, must have felt. The angel told her she shouldn’t be afraid, but who wouldn’t be?
Mary didn’t mention the stuff about Jesus’ destiny, of being God’s Son, successor to David, or the like. She instead got right to the point, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Well the angel of Gabriel had an answer:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of
the Most High will overshadow you; therefore
the child to be born will be holy; he will be called
Son of God.
The angel went on to remind Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be infertile, had conceived “in her old age,” at that time likely anyone over 30, and was six months pregnant. So, nothing is impossible with God.
We have no idea if the angel’s very non-scientific explanation made sense to Mary, who likely lacked any formal education. Honestly it makes little sense to me, and I have three university degrees. But this is not a science problem or issue. Gynecology and infertility have nothing to do with it. This is an issue of faith, not reason or science, as the author of the Letters to the Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We still can’t be sure just what Mary made of all this, nor if the angel was physically present or perhaps came to her in a dream. It does not matter. What matters is how Mary responded in faith:
Here am I, a servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.
That is as sublime an act of faith as the world has ever seen, and we cannot begin to understand it except as an act of faith.
After the Christmas story, which we will hear in less than a week, Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus depart the stage for a while, following the Epiphany visit of the three kings, the adoration of shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night, and the flight into Egypt to avoid the homicidal wrath of Herod. We hear really very little of Jesus until he disappears from the caravan at about age 12 and is found in the temple going about his Father’s business. And that’s about it until his adult ministry takes off at age 30 or so. Mary is almost always with him, or nearby. And, memorably and poignantly, she is there when he is arrested the night before the Passover, she is there when he is tried by the kangaroo court, when he is condemned, and when he is put to death on the Cross at Calvary. Remember that Jesus asks John to look after her. You don’t have to have children to imagine the agony this experience brought to Christ’s mother. Happily though, Mary was also a witness to her son’s resurrection, the Eastern awakening we celebrate and commemorate daily.
Mary, the Mother of God or Theotokos, is not part of the Holy Trinity or godhead, but there is not a lot of daylight between them, and she is worthy of our veneration. We don’t worship the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we can ask for her prayerful intercession, just as we remember in our prayers all those who have gone before us. My father has been dead now 43 years and my grandfather 25 years, but I still ask them for advice and draw warmth and strength from their love. In the same way we draw warmth and strength from the Blessed Virgin.
There may have been some over the past 2000 years, but I have never heard of any miraculous apparitions or appearances of Peter, Paul, John, Andrew, Mary Magdalene or any others of our faith forebears. Yet there have been dozens of claimed appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are seemingly endless. Are they real? What is real? None are susceptible to factual proof, but again these are not matters of science or historical fact, but of faith.
At El Buen Pastor here in Durham, the fastest growing parish in the Diocese of North Carolina, a great festive celebration every year is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It would likely be today, but for COVID-19. On December 22, 1531, a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, experienced a vision of a dazzling young woman, clothed in blue, on a hilltop outside of Mexico City. He said she spoke to him in the ancient Aztec language, identified herself as Mary, the mother of God, and asked that a church be built there. The local bishop simply didn’t believe Juan Diego’s miraculous but likely preposterous story, even when he reported encountering Mary twice more. So the bishop told Juan Diego to ask her for a sign, that he too might believe. When Juan saw Mary on the fourth occasion, she said to him “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She told him to gather flowers from the hilltop, though flowers didn’t grow there in the December cold. But Juan did as he was told and found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, growing there. Mary arranged the roses in Juan’s cloak. When he opened his cloak before the bishop, the roses fell out and on the fabric on the cloak was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the almost 500 years since, countless cases of miraculous healing have been recorded of people praying before the emblazoned cloak of Juan Diego, now at the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City. The appearances of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego in 1531 are more in the realm of holy faith than historic fact, but who knows?
Woody Allen once said he was going to give his therapist one more year and would then go to Lourdes in France. On February 11, 1858 a 14 year old girl, Bernadette Sombirous, was gathering firewood and after taking off her shoes and stockings to wade through some water, she heard the sound of two gusts of wind, but the nearby trees and bushes did not move. But a wild rose in the grotto did move. As Bernadette told it:
…I came back towards the grotto and started
taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off
the first stocking when I heard a sound like a
gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow.
I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings.
I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to
look at the grotto, I saw a lady dressed in white,
wearing a blue dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose
on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary;
the beads of the rosary; the beads of the rosary
were white…From the niche, or rather the
dark alcove behind it, came a dazzling light…
She tried to make the sign of the Cross, but her hands were trembling. The lady smiled and asked Bernadette to pray with her. There were 18 more appearances of Our Lady that year at Lourdes. And as with Our Lady of Guadalupe, countless cases of miraculous healing have been attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes. And for the more than 160 years since, thousands of pilgrims have visited Lourdes. Again, who knows? Matters of faith are pretty hard to prove or disprove.
Every time we affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed, we say that “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.” And in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief “in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”