The Mother of God

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). You won’t find Saint Paul’s poignant question to the Corinthians in our readings this morning, or in any Advent reading of any year. Yet many of us here this morning have spent our lives making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, seeking lives that conform to the weight of grace the Spirit brings. That our bodies—these frail, fleshy, figures—could become not just tents for the Spirit’s occasional visits but temples, sacred spaces set aside for the Spirit’s enduring presence, is, oh, it is an unspeakable mystery. How can this be?!

Advent is temple-building time, the season of waiting and preparation for the coming of the Lord. The temples we build are earthen vessels, made of simple dust and clay. No cedars of Lebanon here, no marble pillars or granite walls. And we do not adorn our temples with gold or silver; we do not fill them with incense or burnt offerings. The only gold that shines in them is of holy living; anything else is mere fool’s gold. The silver is the service we render to God and neighbor; the incense, our prayers rising to heaven. These things make for the beauty of holiness that is the heart of our temple worship.

David thought he would add on to his temple, that he would build an edifice worthy of the presence of the Lord, “a house of cedar” like his own royal palace. Nathan gets caught up in David’s enthusiasm and speaks a word not from the Lord: “Go, do all that you have in mind.” As it turns out, the word from the Lord is not what Nathan expected. “You are going to build me a house, David? No. My temple is where I set my presence. You will not build me a house. In fact, I will make you a house.” All the best intentions, all the right materials mean nothing unless God acts first, unless the Lord lays the foundation. And no matter how many temples we build, whether of brick or of body, the Lord’s presence will always make camp with the people he has chosen.

All of this leads us to Mary. In a way, everything in Scripture leads us to Mary. The faithfulness of generation upon generation of Israelites, servants of the Lord, builds up to this spectacular woman. Every person in the Old Testament who ever said yes to God, from Noah and Abraham to Ruth and Naomi, from Deborah and Gideon to Jeremiah and Esther, every one of them paved the way for Mary’s yes. Every prophet who faithfully brought to the people a word of the Lord, who put the flesh of his or her body, the mouth, the tongue, the voice, the hand, to the service of God’s word leads to this young Jewish girl, who makes room for the Lord of the universe in her innermost parts, in her womb. “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me,” Paul tells the Galatians, but Mary can say those words in a way that even Saint Paul could not possibly imagine.

Mary’s body is truly a temple of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel tells her that she will give birth to a Son by the Holy Spirit, who will fill the core of her very being. The Spirit’s presence will be so total, so complete, that by the work of the Spirit Mary’s body will come to bear a child, her own son, a baby who is also the Son of God, the Word made flesh—Mary’s flesh, bone of her bone, blood of her blood, body of her body. He whom heaven could not hold found himself contained in Mary’s womb.

You who are mothers, who have given birth to children, know what it is like to have another person come to life within you. You know the joy, the mystery, the wonder that comes with a pregnancy. Others watch as your body is transformed by the body of the child within you, but you alone understand what your body knows during this nine-month transformation. It is something I, and so many others like me, can never begin to understand, because it is fleshly knowledge, and not the knowledge of ideas or sight or even relationships. And this knowledge never completely recedes; it does not disappear the moment the child is born. Many new mothers are familiar with the “baby blues” that follow a child’s birth; some even suffer from postpartum depression. To have such an intimate relationship change, really end, so suddenly can be catastrophic even in a moment that is otherwise full of joy at the life of the newborn baby.

This is the relationship Mary has to her son, Jesus. In her body is the body of her son, and so, like every other mother, Mary knows what it is like to have this child come to life inside her, to have her body grow around him as he progresses through the same stages of human development that every one of us went through in our own mothers’ wombs. Jesus is fully human, the son of Mary. Mary is Jesus’ mother. She is the mother of Christ.

But Jesus is also fully divine, the Son of God, so Mary is also the mother of God. Imagine! This frail, fleshy figure—the mother of God! Yet this is what we believe about Mary, what Christians have believed about her for nearly two thousand years. Mary is the mother of God. Just as my mother’s relationship to me is different from any other person’s, Mary’s relationship to her Lord and Savior is unique.

Speaking this way can make some Protestants uncomfortable. Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ? Might too much emphasis on Mary take away from the worship we owe her son? Such questions miss the point. In fact, they court saying something about Christ the church insists is simply wrong. God does not appear in human form [snap] like a shapeshifting magician. The Father, by the Holy Spirit, sends the Son fully into human existence. Downplaying Jesus’ mother risks downplaying Jesus’ humanity, risks saying that Jesus only appeared human. And denigrating Mary, as some Christians have done is—well, how could you sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” one moment and insult the mother of this great friend the next? You wouldn’t dare call yourself my friend and insult my mother. How much more should we praise and admire the mother of our Lord!

More than that: if Mary is the mother of Christ, the mother of God, and we share in Christ’s flesh, are members of his body, then Mary is our mother, too. The body and blood that he receives from his mother in the womb are the same body and blood given to us at Holy Communion. We who share everything in Christ, by the grace of God, also share in the benefits of Christ’s mother.

How, then, should we honor the Mother of God? First, foremost, and always by offering praise and worship to her son. Our Savior and Lord is her Savior and Lord. Second, by learning from her example how to make our own bodies temples of the Holy Spirit.

One way to do both of these things at the same time is to learn and memorize Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which Nancy read in the place of the Psalm this morning. Along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, the Magnificat should be part of your regular private devotions. Make Mary’s words your words, just as God made his Word Mary’s. I learned it as a musician, so please forgive the archaic, but certainly beautiful, poetry: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is is name. He has shown strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, Abraham and his seed forever. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, world without end. Amen.

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