Sermon for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
At the end of the 3rd chapter of Genesis, everything seems to collapse. In our beginning, God brought forth creation from nothing except his Love and Word. All was beautiful, true, and it was good. On the sixth day, as the crowning jewel to this masterpiece, God created the human person. Different from water, the plants, and even the creeping animals and winged birds, man reflected something in God himself. There was a rational mind, an immortal soul, the design to holiness, and he was the steward of all creation.
In order that man might fully experience his love, God gave him free will. He had the capacity to act or not to act. To love or not to love. To obey or to rebel. This gift said something about the giver. If God were to deny the human person the freedom to receive his love or to reject it, it wouldn’t be a free gift of love. If God removed the freedom to rebel, love wouldn’t be a choice and then it wouldn’t really be love.
And in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the icon of humanity’s first parents, rebelled. Their disobedience set a pattern of behavior that would become the plague on all their children. They sinned, they hid, and they blamed.
In the words of the poet John Milton:
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate.
Earth felt the wound; and nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty serpent; and well might; for Eve,
Intent now wholly on her taste, naught else
Intent wholly on our taste, nothing else regarded, all is lost.
Read in isolation, this story of the Fall is incomplete. It feels like a morality play that could have come from the folk wisdom of Greek mythology of Grimm’s Fables, especially with the talking snakes, forbidden fruit, and a God who walks like a man and seems ignorant of what Adam and Eve had done. But we aren’t meant to read this in isolation.
For Christians, all of Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments, are read through the lens of Jesus Christ Crucified. Fr John Behr, a brilliant patristics scholar and Orthodox priest, has been very helpful in his writings reminding me that when the Gospels and Epistles speak of Jesus Christ accomplishing things according to the Scriptures, they are talking about the Old Testament. This is why St Paul says he desires to know one thing and one thing only - Jesus Christ and him crucified, for the Crucified Lord is the key that unlocks the mysteries of all Scripture. Calvary is the center of our faith and his truth radiates both to the future and to the past.
In isolation, Adam and Eve can feel like a cartoon. It can feel like the founding document of oppressive patriarchy that continues to govern the blaming of women for the faults of men. But it’s not meant to be read in isolation.
Paradise may have seemed to be lost. And things were bad, no doubt. Milton’s poem describes all of nature sighing. But all was not lost. In the very moment of judgment was the promise of redemption:
“The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.’”
This verse in Genesis 3 is known as the protoevangelium, or the first gospel, the first proclamation of the Good News. It’s the first proclamation of the Gospel because we are told that the woman’s offspring will strike the head of the serpent, destroying it. The end of evil has already been declared. But it will not come from the wife of Adam, it will come from the New Eve.
Read from the perspective of the Cross, a powerful harmony unfolds. The Old Eve was brought forth out of the Old Adam. The New Adam, Jesus Christ, was born of the New Eve, Mary.
The Word of God was begotten of the Father, without a mother. The Incarnate Word was born of a woman, without a father.
The Old Eve disobeyed the command of God. The New Eve said, “Be it done to me according to thy word.” The Old Eve was beguiled by the serpent and he tormented her children for thousands of generations. The New Eve stood on its head, and her Son ended his tyrannical reign of evil.
Eve, of her own free will, disobeyed. Mary, of her own free will, said yes.
We celebrate her birth because she was prepared by God (“the Lord is with thee”) to close the door to the curse of human sin by opening her womb to the New Adam. She is not our Savior, but she is the image of what it means to be saved. By saying yes, she conceived Jesus in her heart before conceiving him in her womb. At the wedding at Cana, she told the servants to do whatever he told them. She was at the foot of the cross. And she was in the Upper Room waiting on his Holy Spirit.
That is the Christian life - to receive the Lord Jesus in our hearts, to do whatever he tells us, to kneel before his Sacrifice on the Cross, and to pray for his Holy Spirit.
All was not lost. Nothing is impossible with God.
Today we bring into the household of God two precious children. A cynical voice might ask what kind of a world are we bringing new life into? They might even ask if it is just to bring new life into a world that is so uncertain and where each week we seem to find a new low in devaluing human dignity.
They might ask what kind of a Church is initiating them into Christ? This past week, the latest statistics for the Episcopal Church were released and they are bad. The Episcopal Church is losing people at a mortal rate. Let me put it this way: there are more Episcopal Churches with an average Sunday attendance of 10 people or fewer than churches with an average attendance of 300 or more. St Timothy’s is in the top 250 of all Episcopal Churches in terms of attendance. And we aren’t huge.
In both our world and in the Church, it seems as if nature is sighing and that we are intent wholly on our taste, naught else regarded. Paradise feels lost.
Sometimes we must endure banishment in order to turn our gaze toward real hope and not the manufactured salvation that only extends our exile. The world may seem lost, but tomorrow’s mass shooting and next week’s exploitation of the innocent has already been nailed to the cross with Our Lord. The Church may seem weakened, but she cannot, and she will not, die.
Are we ready to ask the Lord to help us to hear, “Nothing is impossible with God”?
The Nativity of the Virgin is our gift. Her birth reminds us that Paradise is never lost and that the most desolate of situations, the most impossible of circumstances are the preferred canvas for God to reveal a masterpiece. Her birth reminds us that, through faith in her Son, we can and will find the seeds of hope in the face of exile.
Her fidelity stands on the head of evil and her Son crushes its head.
Are we ready to ask the Lord to help us to conceive the Lord in our heart, to do whatever he says, to kneel at the Cross, and to pray for his Holy Spirit. Are we willing, are we ready to say, with the Mother of the Church, “Let it be done to me according to thy word?”