On 8th September the Church in both East and West remembers the birth of Mary, mother of Jesus. It may seem to be a strange event to commemorate but this birth marks the boundary between the time when people lived under the Law and the time when they live under Grace. From trying to earn favour with God we have moved to a situation where we are freely given what we cannot earn. This is surely worth a celebration!
The readings were Psalm 45:10-17 and Luke 1:26-37. The reflection given at the 2pm SLT service follows:
Boundaries, in time or in space, are important to us as human beings. Many of us, when asked about our favourite place, would say either on a mountain or on the seashore. The theory is that each of these places marks a boundary. The mountain top takes you to where earth and sky meet and the shore is where sea and sky meet in the distance and earth and sea meet nearby. These places seem to have some mysterious quality for many of us.
I remember hearing about crossing the line ceremonies on ships which cross the equator. King Neptune comes on board and requires those who have not crossed before to undergo some kind of trial and then they receive a certificate. It never occurred to me that such an event might take place at other lines on the globe. However, on the only cruise I have been on, which took my husband Phil and I to Greenland and Iceland, we crossed the Arctic Circle. Lo and behold, Neptune turned up then also. I was rather glad that we didn’t undergo any initiation ceremonies. The First Officer was not so lucky, being slapped with a large raw fish by Neptune among other indignities!
If we move from thinking of place to thinking of time, consider the special parties which mark the ‘coming of age’ of a person. The child becomes an adult in the eyes of the law in their country and it’s a time of special celebrations and gifts. Special wedding anniversaries are often celebrated and have their own name such as Silver for 25 years, Gold for 50 years, Diamond for 60 and so on. It was for our Pearl anniversary, 30 years, that we went on the cruise to Greenland. The child becomes an adult in the eyes of the Jewish Law at his Bar Mitzvah. The child becomes an adult in the eyes of the Church at Confirmation. The child moves from death to life at baptism. Two people become one at marriage. All reasons for a party as a boundary is crossed.
Today in the Church calendar, both in the Western Churches and in the Eastern Churches, we celebrate the crossing of a boundary. It is the boundary between the old and the new covenants. The old covenant was governed by the Law, the Ten Commandments. The new covenant is a covenant of grace. Perhaps the way to illustrate the difference is to think of the thief who hung on the cross beside Jesus. He was condemned to die on the cross because he broke the Law of the land. The effect of the Law on that man was judgement and death. However, as he hung there at the very end of his life, he turned to Jesus and asked: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ The response from Jesus was: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ The effect of grace was not death but eternal life freely given, not earned. You can see that crossing over from one covenant to the other is very significant. We move from being slaves to the Law, trying to earn our way to heaven, to the freedom of grace.
What is it that marks this boundary between covenants? It is the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think it’s easy to focus on the birth of Jesus as marking the significant change from the Law to grace. Or maybe the Annunciation, when we hear in the Gospel passage how Mary said yes to the angel’s message from God that she would bear Jesus, the Son of the Most High. The Church, however, goes further back in time and marks the boundary at the moment of the birth of Mary.
Mary has a special title, Theotokos. This means ‘God-bearer’. We often hear Mary called the ‘Mother of God’. The words used in the Rosary echo the message of the angel and go on to call Mary this:
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.’
Mary gave birth to Jesus so you can see why she is called the Mother of God but within the idea of mother is the suggestion of a new life. Jesus’ human form was new life of course, but God is not new. He didn’t need a mother to give him life. God gave life to Mary, not the other way round. The title God-bearer, Theotokos, is probably a more accurate one.
The birth of Mary is the cause for great rejoicing. It’s like the first act in a most wonderful story which still continues today. This is what Andrew of Crete wrote in celebration of this day:
“Let the whole creation, therefore, sing praise and dance and unite in celebrating the glories of this day. Today let there be one common feast of all in heaven and earth. Let everything that is, in and above the earth, join together in rejoicing. For today a shrine is built for the creator of the universe. The creature is newly ready as a divine dwelling for the creator.”
Mary had a unique and celebrated role to play in the story of salvation. As Jesus died once and for all, he only needed to be born once and so could only be carried in a womb once. There could only be one God-bearer in a physical sense. In another sense, we are each like Mary, a Theotokos. Christ lives in each of us if we have faith in him. We carry him within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We carry the message of the freedom of grace to a world which needs it so much.
Let’s give thanks for this special day as we listen to a reading from the Office for the Feast of the Nativity of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church:
What is this sound of feasting that we hear?
Joachim and Anna mystically keep festival.
‘O Adam and Eve,’ they cry, ‘rejoice with us today:
For if by your transgressions you closed the gates of Paradise to those of old,
We have now been given a glorious fruit,
Mary the Child of God
Who opens its entrance to us all.’
Thy nativity, O Theotokos,
Has brought joy to all the world:
For from thee has shone forth
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God.
He has loosed us from the curse and given the blessing:
He has vanquished death, and bestowed on us eternal life.
By thy holy nativity, O most pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna were set free from the reproach of childlessness,
And Adam and Eve from the corruption of death.
Delivered from the guilt of sin,
Thy people keep the feast and sing:
‘The barren woman bears the Theotokos, the Sustainer of our life.’
Be renewed, O Adam, and be magnified, O Eve;
You prophets, dance with the apostles and the righteous;
Let there be common joy in the world among angels and mortals
For the Theotokos is born today of righteous Joachim and Anna.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor