Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent - the Blessed Virgin Mary

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. But given that it is also Christmas Eve I am sure most will appreciate if I try to keep things brief today. So my few words will be more of a reflection than a homily.

This Sunday in Advent, the final one, traditionally has the Blessed Virgin Mary as its focus; hence our Gospel reading from Luke describing the scene generally referred to as the Annunciation. It is natural to think of the Mother of our Lord at this time; for she is a very important part of the story of his first coming. And where better to do so than in this church which bears her name ? A church built on a site that has has borne her name as a place of Christian worship for most certainly the best part of a thousand years … and most probably for a great deal longer.

The importance of the role the Blessed Virgin played in that first coming can not be over-stressed. I am sure all here have heard it said on many occasions how important her freely given 'Fiat', as it is in the Latin, or 'thy will be done' in older translations, is. Mary is, as it is made clear in Scripture, to be seen as a second Eve; and just as the first Eve by her own free-will action sinned and brought about the Fall that has caused so much anguish to humanity ever since, so too the second Eve of necessity had to be able to consent of her own free-will to play her role in God's plan for the redemption and salvation of all mankind.

And as I was preparing these few words, it occurred to me to wonder if whether or not free-will and our Lady's role as the second Eve did not also play a part in one of the areas of theological reflection that has surrounded the Blessed Virgin down through the ages. I am speaking here of the teaching concerning the Immaculate Conception, a very early tradition of the Church that puts forward the idea that she was from the very first moment of her existence protected from the stain of original sin. 

This teaching is a doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is not commonly held in the Orthodoxy, based on their different understanding of the effect of original sin from that of the Western Church. Neither is it a doctrine of Anglicanism, in the sense of being a teaching one is bound to hold, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. However, it a teaching one may piously hold to if one is convinced of the truth of it. I am, for my own part, I am sure no one will be surprised to learn, persuaded by the logic of the idea that when God chose to be born of a woman, he would chose to do so only in circumstances where the human being who was to be his mother would be free of the stain of all sin, whether original or actual.

Now that argument is essentially Christological in nature in that it concerns the theology of the person of the second person of the blessed Trinity. But a thought did occur to me on this topic that relates rather more directly to the Blessed Virgin and her role as the second Eve. And it concerns the status of the first Eve when she made her free-will decision to disobey God. My thought is a rather simple one – and that is that Eve, when she rejected obedience to God's will having been tempted to do so by Satan in the form of a serpent, did so free not only of the stain of any actual sin, never, of course having sinned in any way prior to this occasion; but also free of the stain of original sin as well. This is only logical, as original sin did not exist before her act of disobedience. 

Is it not reasonable that the second Eve should be in the same state as the first, free of all sin, when placed in the position of making the free-will decision that would save mankind from the consequences of the free-will decision of the first? Indeed, given the rather difficult circumstances that saying 'yes' to the will of God on this occasion would place the Blessed Virgin in, the idea that she would be given special graces from God in order to allow her to be better able to chose to obey his will is compelling, to my mind at least; and this argument is bolstered by the words spoken to the Blessed Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel on this occasion – often referred to as the Angelic Salutation – Ave, gratia plena, as it is rendered in the Vulgate; or Hail, you who are full of Grace in English.

However, I said I would be brief and therefore have perhaps already spoken for too long and so I will leave it there. But as I finish, one final thought: is it really so inconceivable that the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we might be saved would also give extra graces to the young woman he intended to be the second Eve that she might be at least well equipped to obey him as the first? But whether you think it so or not, we will all agree that on this day, of all days, the day before Christmas, that it is right to give thanks to God for the 'yes' spoken by the Blessed Virgin on the occasion of the Annunciation and all that he did for us in the sending of his Son into the world when she freely consented to his will on that day. Amen.

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