Breaking Taboo: Mary and Advent Sermons
Preach the full council of God even as it focuses on the Virgin Mary who was the virginal handmaid of the Lord and through whom Immanuel, “God with us,” happens.
Mention the “Blessed Virgin Mary” in some Christian circles today and you are likely to be labeled an idol-worshipper and lumped in with “those Catholics” (whatever that is supposed to mean). The prevailing mood and thinking within casual Christianity and American Evangelicalism is decidedly anti-Marian. The charge is usually the same: Remembering Mary in your sermon is tantamount to betraying Christ. Compounding the challenge to preachers is the assertion that Jesus was born of a virginal Galilean teenager which finds repudiation in the modern mind. People today believe everything continues according to ridged laws of nature and nothing extraordinary does or could ever happen; like the miracle of God visiting us in a way that would signal something extraordinary taking place. What, then, does the faithful preacher do about the Mother of our Lord during Advent and Christmas? The answer: confidently and boldly preach the Word of God.
The Virgin’s role towers in front of us in many of Advent’s pericopes, as well as the Creeds themselves, to be openly confessed by thinking, rational Christians, and preached by clear-minded pastors. Not only that, but the story of Christmas and the events leading to the birth of Jesus necessitate the monumental role Mary plays. Indeed, Mary is a monument to the Church and in the Church, so says the Word of God. So, be bold and confident in your Advent proclamation. Mary, the mother of our Lord, cannot be avoided or sidestepped during this season, no matter how “taboo” publicly mentioning the all-too-Catholic-sounding “Blessed Virgin Mary” may be to the Protestant mind. The pericopes of Advent and Christmas are there to safeguard the Bible’s teaching about who the Christ is (that is, Christology). Without Mary, the good news of “God with us” falls susceptible to becoming the heresy of, “Jesus, the friendly ghost,” without a blood atonement and bodily resurrection, with further implications to vacate Holy Communion of His true body and blood.
Mary, the mother of our Lord, cannot be avoided or sidestepped during this season, no matter how “taboo” publicly mentioning the all-too-Catholic-sounding “Blessed Virgin Mary” may be to the Protestant mind.
According to the divine disclosures, the Biblical logic of redemption, and also due to subversive lies about it (see for example, Matthew 13:55), the virgin birth had to be asserted and proclaimed from the earliest days of the Christian Church. Therefore the line, “born of the Virgin Mary,” was foundational in the Old Roman Creed (just a generation or two after Saint John himself died), the baseline for the Apostles’ Creed, and the cornerstone of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Athanasian Creeds. The virgin birth was preached and defended boldly as bona fide apostolic doctrine because it was understood as both a fact of history (Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds in the fields recounting the story) and the truth of divine revelation; from the Holy Spirit, to the prophet Isaiah (7:14) and the Evangelist Matthew (1:23).
The preacher’s confidence stands upon unassailable, Biblical texts. It is only of Mary that the Holy Spirit says in Luke chapter 1, “all generations will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48), because she is the favored one of the Lord, being uniquely, “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), and hailed by even the highest of archangels, Gabriel (1:26ff). The texts of Advent and the Biblical narrative of Christmas simply cannot be proclaimed while omitting the role of Mary and duly extolling her special place in the account.
In sixteenth-century Wittenberg, Martin Luther recognized and respected that, in the New Testament, the Virgin figures prominently in the birth stories of Matthew, and especially Luke, and is mentioned several more times throughout the Gospels, culminating in her appearance at the crucifixion of her Son. In the upper room in Jerusalem, Mary witnessed the growth of the early Church. Both her maternity and virginity are stated in the Gospels; she miraculously conceived and gave birth to Jesus without losing her virginity (Matthew 1:20, 20; Luke 1:34f). For his part, Luther firmly held to these beliefs and insisted, just as Scripture declares Mary is highly favored of the Lord and most blessed among women, she should be esteemed within the Church for her role in God’s great work of redemption, that is, Mary is essential to the Gospel of Christ itself. After all, Mary and the Apostles remain a part of the living Church in Heaven, and the Church is one in Christ, whether saints are alive on Earth or not. As Jesus Himself put it: God, “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27).
Evangelical reforms during the Conservative Reformation stood firmly within the most ancient and orthodox teachings about Mary, when the earliest patristic writings about Mary were penned shortly after the time of the Holy Apostles. From Clement to Augustine, the Virgin Mary is always mentioned with the highest respect and honor, not the least bit inferior to the Apostolic Saints because of her role in God’s great work of redemption. Justin Martyr in 165 AD, for example, famously contrasted Mary’s obedience with the disobedience of Eve in Genesis 3. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, in an effort to combat those who denied the true humanity of the Son of God, Mary was designated Theotokos – “Mother of God” or “God-Bearer.” To deny this, they said, is tantamount to denying the Incarnation of the Son, for Mary bore and birthed into this world, in the human flesh her body provided, God Himself. It is, therefore, perfectly orthodox to speak of, “Mary, the Virgin Mother of God,” or the, “Blessed Virgin, Mother of our Lord.” In fact, to say the opposite is not merely taboo to the Church, but rank heresy.
Lest we slip into a host of heretical teachings about Christ as one person with two natures, the Church must assert it was Mary’s flesh which enfleshed the Word that was with the Father in the Beginning (John 1:1-3). It was her Holy Spirit inspired obedience and humility that begins the climax of God’s epochal work of salvation through the incarnation. Adam was taken from the dust of ground, but Jesus came by way of the Virgin’s body; the new Eve of the new creation. The Advent of our Lord happens in and through the fact of Mary; Mary’s faithfulness, Mary’s being “full of grace,” Mary’s sanctified body, and Mary’s birthing God’s only Son, Jesus. So, she cannot be sidestepped but stands at the heart of the Gospel proclaimed during Advent and Christmas everywhere as a respectful and dignified Church stands in awe of God’s wonders and the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Preach, therefore, the full council of God even as it focuses on the Virgin Mary who was the virginal handmaid of the Lord and through whom Immanuel, “God with us,” happens.
Adam was taken from the dust of ground, but Jesus came by way of the Virgin’s body; the new Eve of the new creation.
Being born of this woman, Mary, in fact is essential for our justification. The Son of God had to be made truly human in order to represent us from conception through death, even death on a cross. The doctrine of representation is lost without Jesus, “being born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). Goats and bulls could not take away the sin of the world of humanity, but the righteous blood of, “the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5), can and did. You cannot preach justification without incarnation and the incarnation cannot be established without declaring the role of the Virgin Mary. Be bold and confident preaching the enfleshed Word of God, lest Jesus become conflated with the Holy Spirit.
By giving deference to the role of the Virgin Mary in the incarnation and, by extension, our justification through God’s grace because of Christ, we see and hear about the dignified role women have played in the story of the world’s redemption. Too often Protestants associate women with the Eve figure: insubordinate, freethinking, power-playing, troublesome. Mary explodes this image in the first pages of the Gospels through her courage, her obedience, and her gifted holiness. It will be the woman of the New Covenant, not the Old Testament, who exemplifies new life in the Kingdom of God to come. Mary, then, restores the dignity of womanhood Eve had undone. So, following the Blessed Virgin Mary, the New Testament Scriptures provide us with a host of eminent, exemplary female saints: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, Junia, Sapphira, Lydia, Phoebe, Aquila, and many others. These all followed the holy life and path of the Virgin Mary, which of course led straight to the foot of the Cross where her Son was crucified. It is there worship begins, not of the vessel of the Messiah, but of Messiah Himself.
Faithful preachers do well to break the Protestant taboo during Advent. Women, indeed, have a place in redemptive history. A woman stands right at the center of what God accomplishes for our Salvation through Jesus Christ. So, too, women have a place in the Church. They are not in the back, not in the kitchen, and neither in preaching nor the pastorate, but in public proclamation as a key part of the Bible’s story of what and how God saved us through the One, “born of a woman.” If we lose this, as has been done in the past, if women cannot hear and see the role they have played in salvation history and the Church through Mary who is the representative woman, if this role is not honored and proclaimed in keeping with Biblical truth and the parameters of trustworthy doctrine, then an egalitarian backlash will occur (as it has) and the glorious role of women and the feminine Bride of Christ will be perverted and we will be driven back to emulating rebellious Eve in the Garden. In the Gospels, however, it is Mary, not Eve, who graces the Church with the holy fruit of her womb and labors of love from her heart in raising the Son of God who is, at the same time, Mary’s son. So, far from taking the focus off Christ, preaching the role of Mary drives us to the core of the Gospel itself during Advent and Christmas: God has come in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth to redeem a people for Himself. Preachers honor Christ by breaking Protestant taboos to honor the uniqueness and blessedness of His mother, Mary.