Today is the day when the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has chosen to commemorate the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Now, I understand that just the mention of Mary might begin some people worrying that the pastor has left Lutheranism for the shelter of the Roman church. Let me remind you, however, that although the Lutheran Church does not pray to or worship the saints, we do thank God for them and remember what it is that made each of these people saints. For the moment, let us look past all the heresies and pious opinions that have sprung up around the mother of God. After all, it does us no harm and much good to remember the good and gracious work God has done for and through the Blessed Virgin.
As Dr. Luther said: We want to hold the dear virgin and the holy mother in all honour as she certainly deserves to be honoured yet we do not want to honour her in such a way that we make her equal to her son, Christ. For she was not crucified for us nor did she die for us or pray for us on the cross: but Christ was crucified for us and died and pleaded and prayed for us with tears on the cross. Therefore honour Mother Mary as you desire but do not accord her the honour which we should accord Christ.1
(39-40) In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Mary left Nazareth almost immediately after the announcement. Whether Mary and Elizabeth were personally acquainted is not known nor necessary. The shared a very special gift in the promises of their God! A promise that was already alive in two very unlikely wombs – one bearing the forerunner in her old age, the other bearing the Messiah in her virginity. The text in no way says that Mary informed Elizabeth concerning what happened to her. She barely got in the door when that greeting and the stirring in Elizabeth’s womb causes Elizabeth to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
(41-42) And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! The Holy Spirit is working overtime in our text. He identifies the Messiah through the spoken words of his humble mother and works immediate faith in the hearts of not one but two individuals – John and his mother Elizabeth. Through the Holy Spirit she is the first human being, other than Mary, who knows and announces that Mary will give birth to the God-man.
Wasn’t it just normal fetal movement? Of course not. This one was with joy, says the text. Under the Holy Spirit, the embryo affected Elizabeth. The baby John is already proclaiming the Messiah and so already it is fulfilled what the angel said to his father, that he should be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. In the presence of Mary and her unborn child the Saviour, the Holy Spirit cannot help but be at work in hearts and lives.
Upon Elizabeth the Spirit fills her with the gift of divination and prophecy. She calls Mary, The Mother, Blessed among all women, on account of the high distinction conferred upon her. In the same breath she also calls the babe that was to be born of her blessed. The most wonderful mother of the most wonderful Son! And in these words the Spirit then works in turn on the young woman given such a weighty task. This enthusiastic welcome, this spontaneous praise, strengthens the faith of Mary in the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning her Son.
(43-45) And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” You see, God gave Mary two gifts: the Son of God in her womb and the faith in her heart. Both were begotten of God through the working of the Holy Spirit. Both come about by the Gospel: “Be it unto me according to the Word” at the conception of Jesus and “Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth”: in connection with the beginnings of faith. The first was the greatest of boons for all mankind, the second was most important for Mary. For she, like us was in need of a Saviour to cling to in faith and for forgiveness. To bear the child in her womb she needed her heart to be filled with the Spirit.
When Jesus would be greeted one day many years later by an enthusiastic woman who would cry out “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But He would only reply, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Where the Word is proclaimed people are filled with the Spirit and great things happen!
(46-49) And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Hear again the song which breathes the Spirit of humble faith, giving all glory to God alone. Elizabeth had praised her faith, but she gives all glory and honor to God alone. His power is unlimited such is the majesty of God. But the other side of His nature is revealed still more wonderfully in the work of redemption. His mercy is new from generation to generation upon them that fear Him. God delights in the salvation and happiness of all His creatures, because His name is mercy, and His nature is love.
Mary’s faith-response is even more striking when we realize that, according to Old Testament Law, her pregnancy while still single might well be dealt with by stoning! And certainly her fiancé, who would know the child was not his, would hardly go through with the marriage. Yet filled by the Spirit, all these things Mary was willing to trust God to work out!
(50-55) And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Those who see their need of Christ, and desire righteousness and life in Him, He fills with good things – with the best things; He gives liberally to them, and they are abundantly satisfied with every blessing He gives. Those who are weary and heavy-laden find rest with Christ. Those who thirst are called to come to Him and drink. To the hungry soul every bitter thing becomes sweet, and to the thirsty fair water is like honey from the rock.
While this blessing was deferred, His people who waited for it, were often ready to ask, Has God forgotten to be gracious? He had not forgotten, He remembered His former mercy, He remembered the days of old. Where is He that brought them up out of the sea, out of Egypt? He will save His people again, but in a more fearsome and final manner. It is a mercy not only designed, but declared; it was what He spoke to our fathers, that the Seed of the woman should break the head of the serpent; that God should dwell in the tents of Shem; and, that in Abraham’s seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed, with the best of blessings, with the blessings that are for ever.
And it all begins in the humble praise and faith of this frightened young woman – a woman filled with the Spirit. Mary is not Christ, but she was given the honour of bearing Christ. She is not some co-redemptrix, doling out salvation, but the mother of the one who would bring salvation for all who call upon Him – even her. And that is why we honour her this day. For the example of her determined faith, for her recognition of God’s grace and mercy, for the praises she rightly heaped upon not herself, but the child she bore for you and me and for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1What Luther Says, Ewald Plass, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1994. #4009