“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” This saying has been around a long time and been attributed to several famous and not-so-famous people, but it rings true, doesn’t it?: It’s hard to communicate AND easy to miscommunicate, especially if both speaker and hearer want to misunderstand!
We are a people strongly shaped by an inherent mistrust of all authority except our own and we hold to the notion of equality to the point of idolatry. This might be good for having a culture shaped exclusively by free-market ideals and entrepreneurship, but it might not serve us well in embracing ideas much older than either of these two philosophies.
Look at our Gospel Lesson for today. It’s found in Luke 1:39-49, 56. Here we read the moments after Mary, already pregnant with the Lord Jesus, and Elizabeth, almost ready to deliver the Lord’s cousin John the Baptist, meet. Both women experiencing miraculous pregnancies. Both women keenly aware of the historical moment in history each occupies. Both women graced by God to do what all we humans are called to do: make the goodness and love of God visible to the world. These ladies, shaped by centuries of expectation, prophecies, and religious instruction, know one is giving birth to the prophesied prophet who will prepare the way for the long-expected Messiah, and the other lady who will birth Him Who cannot be held, making her womb “more spacious than the heavens.”
Listen to how Elizabeth greets her younger cousin: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe 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! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe 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.’” Luke 1:41-45
Notice, Elizabeth gets a taste of what is freely offered to all at the Feast of Pentecost after the Lord’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit; she is filled with the Holy Spirit. This means her words aren’t inspired by some over the top emotion or even familial devotion. What inspires her words is the same inspiration in the whole of Holy Scripture!
Elizabeth declares three blessings and asks one significant question. First, she declares what is obvious to anyone who actually realizes Who Mary is carrying in her womb – Blessed are you among women. If I can put this in some Southern slang – Ain’t never been a woman like you, ever, and ain’t never gonna be another like you! Next, she proves her first statement wise and true because she recognizes just Who is being brought into the world – Blessed is the fruit of your womb. This is no ordinary Baby. This is no ordinary pregnancy. This is not God just renting space inside a lady so He can get Himself a body (that’s more of a pagan attitude than Christian). No, this is a better “fruit” than Eve ate in the Garden. This fruit undoes the damage of that fruit!
And the third blessing flows naturally from the first two – blessed is she who believed. But that’s what believing does, it makes possible the impossible. God, in His desire to make us like Him, offers us the soul-expanding participation in His love by granting us the ability to choose to believe and the freedom to reject faith if we will.
But the question reveals just why the history of Christianity has ALWAYS held that Mary occupies a unique place as the First Christian (after all, she accepted Jesus to come and live inside her!). Elizabeth, the Jewish lady shaped by centuries of Israel learning the hard way not to fall into the pagan notion of many gods; the Jewish lady whose husband was a Jewish priest and who knew the scriptures, the theology, and the warnings against idolatry; the Jewish lady who, filled with the Holy Spirit, calls her younger cousin “the mother of my Lord.”
We Orthodox Christians don’t call Mary the Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer) to exalt Mary, though she deserves to be held in the utmost esteem and honor for her faithfulness, her devotion, her piety, and her love; but because the Baby in her womb is God Himself taking on flesh to redeem all of humanity. She is the most honored Portal through which the Uncreated God entered His creation. To diminish her is to risk diminishing Him, and when we do that we diminish each other, for we are called to do exactly what she did – have Christ formed in us and show Him to our world. Missing Mary means missing Jesus and Who He is and what He came to do for you and me.
Today, why not put aside all the knee-jerk reactions to how the Church talks about Mary and actually explore the massive amount of wisdom preserved in 20 centuries of Christian prayers and piety to discover for yourself just how absolutely necessary protecting the theology of Jesus is by honoring and doing what Mary, herself, said we should do: “henceforth all generations will call me blessed.”