We are just about half-way through Trinitytide, the longest season of the Church. The summer days have stretched out, the gardens are producing their bounties, and Fall is coming upon us. The liturgical cycle also slows down with fewer changes in prayers and colors. It seems a good time to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. And that, according to our Church Fathers, is exactly what we should not be doing at this point. Just look at the Gospel lessons that have been given to us.
As you all have seen in the readings appointed for each Sunday throughout the past nine weeks of Trinity, there has been a dual focus: first on how the great of salvation we receive in our baptism and then second on our duty to live our lives in accordance with this great gift. Our baptisms made us into a new creation, and now our lives which were corrupted and wounded by sin have been refreshed, been made new by the cleansing waters. This change is an ontological change, meaning a change at the very root of our being. This is a supreme gift since we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church, at our baptisms and now may bear that precious name of Christian, a little Christ. But this new state of being must be lived out and nurtured in our moral life so that we may share Christ’s great gift to the Church: eternal life. We live out morally, what we are ontologically. This means that our duty is to live our day to day life in such a way that it reflects our incorporation into a new Body, that of Christ Himself. Like Paul in the Epistle, he labors continuously for the Church, living out his life of dramatic conversion in humble service to the Body of Christ he had previously tried to kill.
Now we turn to the Gospel, where again we see an emphasis on humility and conversion, contrasting the prideful Pharisee to the humble Publican. It should be noted that the Pharisee does not speak anything untrue. It is true that he is unlike most men. It is true that he fasts and tithes and lives a life of respectable principles. So what is so wrong about this prayer? Jesus introduces the Pharisee by saying that he stood to pray and that he prayed to himself. This can mean that he prays silently, but the play on words is obvious: this man is not praying towards God, but actually to himself. Jesus notes that both the Pharisee and the Publican come to the Temple, but that the Publican stands afar off. Picture the scene then: if the Pharisee is closer to the Temple and the Publican afar off, then the Pharisee must not even be facing the Temple. Jesus is showing us that this man is not concerned with God’s presence. Even though the prayer is addressed to God, both the content and this man’s heart is not about God, as prayer should be. If this man was acknowledging himself before God, he would not equate his own righteous actions with the righteousness of God.
Jesus offers the Publican as our example for prayer. A Publican is a shorthand term for a public official, or tax-collector. These officials were hated by everyone, Jews and Romans alike–and it was a common slander against Jesus that he was a friend of the tax-collectors and sinners (Mt 9). Ha, notice how they are just lumped together. So it is a shock that now the Publican is our example of prayer.
He stands far off from the Temple, not even able to approach. He casts his eyes down, pleading to the Lord for His mercy. The Publican is entering into the presence of the Lord and takes on a position of humility. He smites his breast and only says a simple prayer addressed to God: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The Publican recognizes two truths that the Pharisee missed. First, that he is sinner but second that God is merciful, a fact that the Pharisee has no need to recognize.
The opening line of our Collect for Trinity XI is a remarkable reminder of this fact as well–God declares his power chiefly in showing mercy and pity. Take a moment to reflect on that. The power of God is primarily shown not in His lordship or sovereign providence or Almighty justice (though all of these are True) but in his “inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s power is shown chiefly in His own sacrificial love. It is this fact that moves us to respond to God’s gift with a life of humility and conversion so that as we run the way of His commandments, we then will be partakers in His Kingdom.
The type of humility we are talking about must seep into one’s being as a habit, a continual posture before God and man. This is the type of humility we see in Christ Himself as he “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man.” Christ took on our humanity in the womb of Mary who herself was a humble servant of God.
Today is the feast of the Dormition of Mary, dormition meaning her falling asleep–her death–as when Paul says that the saints have fallen asleep in 1 Thess 4. This feast also refers to the assumption, the lifting up of her body into heaven, just like Elijah & Enoch were assumed body & all into Heaven & so was Jesus assumed body & all into Heaven at his ascension. So today we are to ponder the whole life of Mary, and what a great coincidence for us that this feast lands on a Sunday about humility for she provides us with the premier example of a human serving God in humility.
This might sound a bit extreme given the few number of times that Mary appears in Scripture, but if we pay attention to what Scripture says of Mary, then we will begin to see her as this premier example of a humble life devoted to Jesus. Attention paid to Mary’s role will help aid our attention and guide our lives towards Christ. Like our opening hymn said: “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, virgin mother undefiled, sing of God’s own Son most holy, who became her little child. Fairest child of fairest mother, God the Lord who came to earth, Word made flesh, our very brother, takes our nature by his birth.”
Why is she called fairest mother? Well, sent Gabriel the angel to her and declared that she was favoured by God! And then God asks of her a mysterious and tremendous act to be overshadowed by the Holy Ghost and bear the Son of God. Her response, let it be done, Fiat, is the model of humility as she seeks to serve God and give herself over to Him. Rather than turning away from such a radical and self-giving call, Mary stays and accepts the Lord. And from that point on, the entirety of Mary’s destiny is shaped by her Son.
As she bears Jesus in her womb and raises him as a child, she shows forth this humble dedication as the Holy Family must flee from her family and friends to protect her child. The mission of her Son now takes precedence over her family and relatives.
At the temple, Mary brings the baby and Simeon recognizes that this baby is the Messiah and then also foretells that a sword shall pierce the heart of Mary. It is a declaration of death and yet Mary does not turn away.
Again at the temple, Mary finds Jesus after three days of searching and now starts to understand Simeon’s statement as Jesus claims service to His Father in heaven. Mary is having to give up her Son she has so lovingly born and raised. This giving up happens again and again, as at the Wedding of Cana when she starts him on his ministry without probably knowing, or when she visits him during his ministry and he claims all in the kingdom of God to be His family. And then when he is taken forcibly, tried falsely, tortured, crucified, mocked on the cross. We know that she was there at the cross, and Jesus then looked down at Mary and handed her over to John. Mary must give Jesus up as her son in order that he might be the Messiah of the world. As her own Messiah. Jesus took on the salvation of the world alone, and each time that he separated himself from his mother, she stood by, never revoking, never turning, but humbly accepting her Son as her Lord. I often think how easy it would have been to accept Jesus if one was his mother, but now I see just how hard that actually was. Mary’s humble service to Christ is our premier example of service, of a whole life lived in a posture of humility, never turning away from the Light of the World which she bore in her own womb, but pondering in her heart what new service she would have to give as the identity of her baby boy was slowly revealed. From the first instance Mary is mentioned in the NT to the end, her posture towards God is one, like the Publican, of a humble acceptance, a turning over to God the gift of life that had been given her.
Her special role in the history of salvation made many of the Church Fathers see her as the new Eve because Mary’s role in scripture is not just instrumental, in the sense that all she did was give her body as a surrogate, but rather that her acceptance and had a moral component and one that had large repercussions since by her Fiat, Mary reversed the disobedience of Eve. When she visits her cousin, Elizabeth cries out: “Blessed is she that believed!” Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote around 200 which is a good example of many other Fathers: “But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam, but being nevertheless as yet a virgin, having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.”
Mary’s Fiat, then, was the act of human obedience that reversed the whole pattern of disobedience. Her acceptance deserves the highest praise we can give to another human being–I like Wordsworth’s attempt: “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” For Protestants, the esteem we give Mary seems to much, as if we are giving to her praise only reserved for God. This is not true. Of course we recognize that Mary is still a creature and between all creation and God there exists an infinite chasm of difference. That being said we still admit that Mary is the pinnacle of humanity, and we do not hesitate to love her knowing that (as Bishop Chad often says) we can never love her more than Jesus loves her, and that our love will be pointed to Christ.
From Mary, we have received our Messiah, Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, the Word of the Father, in flesh. She is truly the Mother of God because Jesus, her son, was fully God and fully man. He did not take from Mary existence/being (He was already a Person, of course), but he did take from her human nature and from that union Jesus Christ healed our wounded nature and made it possible for all men and women, including his mother, to be reconciled to God the Father. We are reconciled by joining Christ’s mystical Body, the Church, and in that mystical reality, Mary is our own mother, providing for us an example of how to live a life of humility, dedicated to Jesus Christ her son. May we renounce our own disobedience, put away our sins, and give back to God what he desires of us: our lives. Then we too can offer up selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto God like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.