Monday, March 26, 2007

Say "Yes" to God

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Sermon for the Annunciation of Our Lady, 25 March 2006.

It has been a dominant scene in church art, second only to the crucifixion. It gave us the most popular Christian prayer after the Lord’s Prayer, which gave rise to both the devotion of the Angelus—recited morning, noon, and evening throughout Christendom—and the meditation we know as the holy Rosary.

Tonight we commemorate the dawn of our redemption, the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ announced by the Archangel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin Mary. The story really begins in the reading from Genesis that we heard at Evensong. Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent to be like gods and Adam followed, leading all of us into a fallen condition.

That which we call Original Sin refers to what we now fail to inherit—that fellowship with God that we were created to enjoy. Because of their decision, it is something that is no longer “in the family.” But God did not give up on the humanity he fashioned in his own image. Even at the fall, he manifesting the mystery of our redemption. This is what the early church fathers recognized as the proto-evangelium (the "first gospel").

When God is describing the consequences of sin, there is one curious statement. Speaking to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, God said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise [or 'strike at'] his heel.” That’s where things stood in this brave new world east of Eden. It may seem that the serpent had triumphed in seducing the woman Eve. And yet, there is this promise of God for tomorrow—that in spite of the way things may look for now, it is the woman who will have the final triumph over the serpent . . . through her offspring.

The wording was a bit perplexing . . . “The seed of the woman?” Customarily (and biologically) one would speak about the seed of a man. Could there be some mistake? Some scribal error? What did it mean? Centuries later, Isaiah’s prophecy would seem to confirm the original meaning: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14) which means, “God with us.” And that's exactly what happened.

In the fullness of time, God sent the angel Gabriel to visit a young woman named Mary. As the serpent had once visited Eve with a tempting offer, an angel now comes to another woman to make a proposal that she much freely choose. He appeared to her and said, “Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with you. . . . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary responded, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answered, “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 called holy—the Son of God." The angels waited on baited breath as she pondered this proposal. It is said that God made us without our help, but would not save us without our willing cooperation. Her answer is our hope, the reason we gather today. Our Lady said, “Behold, I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me just as you have said.” When presented with the opportunity to become the Mother of God, the bearer of the Savior, Mary said "Yes" to God.

In the Virgin Birth of Jesus, God makes a fresh start on a new humanity, so he does not use the lineage and agency of a human father. But he uses a remnant of the old humanity, the maiden Mary, to be the mother of the incarnate Lord—a new Adam. That is, Mary willingly decided to provide the human source from which the Word took flesh, the beginning of a spotless new humanity that would inherit fellowship with God.

In the Catechismus of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, he writes: “I believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, . . . was made perfect man, and was conceived in the womb of a woman, being a pure virgin, called Mary, of her proper substance, and her proper blood . . . I believe also that all this was done by the working of the Holy Ghost, without the work of men, to the end that all that was wrought therein might be holy and without spot, pure, and clean; and that thereby our conception might be clean and holy, which of itself is altogether spotted and defiled with sin. I believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without any manner of sin, and without any breach of her virginity; so that by his pure and holy nativity he has purified and made holy ours, which of itself is altogether unclean and defiled with sin.”

Christ is the new Adam, the new Man. St Paul takes up this analogy in his letter to the Church at Rome. Adam brought death into the old humanity. The new Adam (Jesus) brings life into a new humanity. The early Church Fathers took the analogy further in making the connection of Mary as the new Eve. As the old Eve’s disobedience lead the way to death, so the obedience of the new Eve (Mary) leads to the birth of a new humanity.

St Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd Century put it this way, “And so the knot tied by Eve’s disobedience was unloosed through the obedience of Mary; for what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary free through faith.” As Eve was called the mother of all living, so Mary was called Theotokos, (the Mother of God) and the Mother of all who find new life in Christ.

By the time of St Jerome, the contrast between Eve and Mary had evolved into a simple proverb, “Death by Eve, life by Mary.” Where Eve had said "No", Mary said "Yes." For this we call her blessed, and for this we give thanks.

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