The universal church over the centuries and within its liturgy evolved with a number of habits that are sometimes rather hard to break. One is that baptisms are always performed on a Saints Day or other Holy Day as can be arranged with those who wish to be baptized. At one time this was pretty easy to do because baptisms were at one time private family affairs and were done during a small weekday service that also corresponded to a Holy Day; which are conveniently spread out over the whole year.
But today of course we perform baptisms in much the same way as the early church did, on a Sunday, with the whole congregation present. But Sundays don’t always fall on Holy Days – so in the present day we sometimes need to move Holy Days a few days forward or back which we have done today. For today we celebrate not only the baptism of Valery Rose but also the Feast of the Virgin Mary who we all know of course as the mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Now, as good Anglicans or Episcopalians, you may never have heard of the Feast of the Virgin Mary because as ‘protestants’ we have never much completely bought into the doctrine of Mary as the Queen of Heaven as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters regard her.
But in our own way Anglicans certainly should and do venerate Mary as a saint of the elect and as the mother of Jesus because Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Many who do not see this particular feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.
But I would tell you that the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. Whereas Mark’s gospel has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative – Saint Luke has the most material, and Saint John’s Gospel perhaps the most important.
For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has within it the most famous Magnificat hymn as was read in our Gospel lesson today in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham which we read a few weeks past – I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)
Then in Mary’s encounter with her aunt Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child within her womb. As Elizabeth exclaims “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke 1:43-44) And then Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies addressing both Mary and Joseph, her husband: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luk 2:34-35) . . . thus linking Mary to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul.
The abundance of Marian material in Luke explains her veneration in the primitive early Church. She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all and she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very own soul. She is present at the beginning, at the incarnation and she is present at the end at Calvary.
This all points to the unique place that Mary held in the first century Christian community and in their worship.
The veneration of Mary has actually never ceased in the Anglican Church over the centuries, but has matured over time as the Church considered the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
John’s gospel stands out for us as imbued with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is John’s first mention of Mary. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – because he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”
This is profound because the disciples have seen nothing as yet that would relate Jesus to the Father in Heaven. No miracles have been performed; for this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle. And yet Mary knows who Jesus is and what He means for mankind. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.
Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But Saint John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”
I believe that Mary and her Son shared a bond of knowledge of the coming Cross. His life will be offered and a sword will pierce her soul. And once His ministry begins, nothing can stop his movement towards the cross for our redemption. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross.
And it is for this reason that the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin is the perfect opportunity for baptism in the church. For it is in Baptism that we, like Mary, come to God in complete humility knowing only the cross and Christ crucified.
From our Epistle today we read from Paul’s letter . . .
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
In far eastern religions, it is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is true of all journeys, both physical and spiritual. By means of our baptism, we have taken the first step (and for many perhaps, upon reflection, this has been one giant leap). But none the less, it is through our Baptism that we have begun a journey that will last our whole lives long and we are walking where Jesus walked and we are going where Jesus went. But there are many who have an idea that the rest of the journey is simply a slide into heaven, but it is not. Like Jesus, who went directly into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, we too are to follow him and begin a journey that is hard and difficult and not without pain. Jesus’ journey ended on the cross where he died so that we wouldn’t have too. Our journey ends at the cross with His mother, Mary and His disciples . . . waiting . . . in hopeful expectation for his resurrection and his return, when he will gather us all up into the arms of His Father and live forever in His Heavenly Home. Amen