The Minor Feast Day of Our Lady of Walsingham is celebrated in Anglican calendars on October 15th. I will be preaching the following homily this evening. The Epistle reading is 1 John 4:7-16 and the Gospel reading is Luke 1:26-38. The Collect is as follows:
Lord God, in the mystery of the Incarnation,
Mary conceived your Son in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb.
As we, your pilgrim people, rejoice in her patronage,
grant that we also may welcome Him into our hearts,
and so, like her, be made a holy house fit for His eternal dwelling.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
Image of Our Lady of Walsingham
Our Lady of Walsingham is a title of Mary the mother of Jesus. The title derives from the belief that Mary appeared in a vision to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout English noblewoman, in 1061 in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, England. Lady Richeldis had a Holy House built in Walsingham which became a shrine and place of pilgrimage. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this quick introduction.) Although it was destroyed early in the English Reformation, its memory was never quite destroyed, and a shrine has been rebuilt and pilgrimages there have picked back up since the 1890’s.
Why do we celebrate Mary on days like this? Primarily because Mary is a prototype of Christians. This can be expressed in many ways. Let’s look at four quick examples.
First, Mary was the first person to receive Jesus. When the angel Gabriel announced his impending arrival in the world, she said yes, and literally received Jesus in her womb, becoming his mother.
Second, Mary is the first person described in the Bible to be “full of grace.” Those of you who are familiar with the Hail Mary (the Ave Maria), you’re recognize this phrase, or its Latin, gratia plena. Protestant translations of this evening’s Gospel reading have preferred the words “Greetings, favored one.” The Greek behind it is kecharitomene which is a participle meaning “one who was & remains filled with grace.” (Yeah, Greek verbs really do carry a lot of information thanks to their complicated system of conjugations.) Protestants interpret this greeting to be a respectful greeting to a woman God has decided to act graciously towards. The historical interpretation has been more literal, though: God has filled her with grace.
Third, Mary was the first person, after Jesus, to participate in the New Creation. When Gabriel explains to Mary what God has planned, she responds, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum (let it be to me according to your will). That word fiat, translated as “let it be,” is the same fiat as God’s “let there be” way back in Genesis 1. God said, fiat lux, and there was light. The Old Creation was by God’s word alone, “Creation by Fiat” it’s sometimes called. But the New Creation in Christ, which we are a part of through faith and the Sacraments, invites our participation. Our labors in the Lord actually contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom! And Mary was the first in line to join in Christ’s work of the New Creation. When God revealed his plan to her, she responded fiat mihi, and it was done unto her.
Fourthly, Mary was a Temple for Jesus, just as the Church has since become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Think about it: a mother’s womb is an unborn baby’s home! A temple is the home of a god. So when Jesus was being carried about in Mary’s womb, she was literally the New Temple or Tabernacle, physically carrying God within herself! The Church, meanwhile, according to various New Testament Scriptures*, is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Mary was the physical prototype for what we have become spiritually.
(* such as 1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21, and Revelation 3:12.)
As we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary this evening, and her amazing role in the most pivotal of Gospel events, the Epistle reading directs our attention to such topics as loving God, God’s love for us, and abiding in Christ. Personally, I tend to find 1 John rather difficult to read; it feels all tangled up, saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. The detailed logic of St. Paul and the organized structure of Hebrews instead give way to John’s more creative and visionary writing style.
Attempting to unravel what we read this evening, though, this is what we find.
First, St. John tells us that love must be defined from an objective truth: God loves us. And he showed that love by sending his only Son to us to exchange his life for ours. Only once we believe and understand that, can we then know how to love God in return, not to mention love our neighbors also.
Secondly, because true love for God is built upon his sacrifice for us, it therefore must include our belief in and acceptance of that sacrifice. And in that knowledge and belief is salvation: we are “born of God,” receiving new life from him.
Thirdly, once we have that knowledge and belief, and the resulting love and life, we also receive God the Holy Spirit as a confirmation of that knowledge and belief and love and life. So all these things go together as one package: God’s love for us, our love for God, our knowledge of God, our belief in God and his works, the new life of Christ in us, and the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling (or abiding) within us.
Why do we read this on a feast day celebrating Saint Mary the Virgin? Well, it’s a counterpart to the Gospel reading. There, we see the great glory of Mary: the mystery of her being gratia plena, her becoming the Mother of God, her speaking the first human fiat of the New Creation, her being the prototype of the Church and all Christians… she’s an amazing woman! So what we read in the First Epistle of Saint John is the balancing reminder that all human glory comes completely from God. Mary was “full of grace” because God filled her with grace. And it was that work of God that had prepared her for that precious moment when she would say “yes” to God in her New Creation fiat.
The lesson for us, then, is simple. Towards the beginning of this service I read the Collect of the Day; it started out by asserting that Mary conceived God’s Son in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb, and then it prayed that we also may welcome Him into our hearts, and so, like her, be made a holy house fit for His eternal dwelling. Basically, what we see God to have done with her and through her, we pray the same for ourselves. She accepted Jesus in her heart – expressed through her fiat – before she conceived him in her womb. So in the same way we seek to welcome Jesus in our own hearts in order to become Temples of the Holy Spirit. Now yes, we normally speak of “accepting Jesus into our hearts” as a one-time event at the beginning of our salvation. But in reality, faith is not an event, it’s a life. We have to abide in Christ just as the Spirit abides in us. So we continually look to Jesus and his example of perfection, and we look to Mary and her example of perfect reception of Jesus. She took God by his word, and as a result received his Word. May we do the same, today and every day.