By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
(Sermon given at a Sunday Liturgy, December 2017)
“39 Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 Blessed is she who [a]believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
46 And Mary said: “My soul [b]magnifies the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. 49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. 50 And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 52 He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. 54 He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house.”
– Luke 1:39-56 New King James Version (NKJV)
In today’s Gospel there is so, so much we can learn. It’s easy to gloss over the reading, but if we go a little deeper we find a banquet of theology and teaching, that can help us really grow deeper in the understanding and application of our faith. In today’s reading we heard that St Mary arose and went into the hill country to visit St Elizabeth the mother of St John the Baptist. Immediately prior to this reading in the gospel of St Luke, we read about the event of the annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel visited St Mary and announced the birth of our Lord Jesus.
So our reading happens immediately after this event. St Mary had the Holy Spirit overshadow her, and she had just conceived our Lord Jesus in her womb, without any male seed, all through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. The Eternal Word and Son of God, had entered St Mary’s womb and taken flesh in order to be born as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
St Mary gets up immediately after this event, just having conceived, and visits her cousin St Elizabeth. They were actually first cousins. St Anna the mother of St Mary and grandmother of our Lord, was sister of Zoia, who was St Elizabeth’s mother. This makes St Mary and St Elizabeth first cousins. This means that our Lord Jesus and St John the Baptist were second cousins.
We read that this was in the 6th month after St Elizabeth had conceived through her husband Zacharias in their old age. So our holy mother St Mary had just conceived and St Elizabeth was 6 month pregnant with St John the Baptist. We read something really beautiful in this verse. We read that when St Mary spoke to St Elizabeth that St John leaped in her womb. We read that St Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said the following:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
This is quite beautiful, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in other words through God Himself, St Elizabeth is the first human being to praise St Mary:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
The first being to praise St Mary was Archangel Gabriel, representing the heavenly realm, who was sent by God Himself who had said:
“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
So in the persons of Archangel Gabriel and St Elizabeth we have represented the heavens and the earth blessing and praising St Mary. And all this took place by the command of God, who sent Archangel Gabriel, and the Holy Spirit who filled and inspired St Elizabeth.
This can give us comfort as Orthodox Christians, who have continued in this same Scriptural tradition in praising St Mary and blessing her. If we are ever questioned about our praising St Mary, or ever have doubts, we have these wonderful examples given and directed by God Himself, that bless our Holy Mother the Ever Virgin Theotokos St Mary.
What else can we learn from this event? We see here that Jesus was just conceived, but His presence even as an embryo contributes to Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit and John leaping in her womb. This is why the Orthodox Church absolutely prohibits any use of contraceptives that destroy the embryo, even if it’s only the morning after pill or any forms of abortion. We believe that immediately when the child is conceived in the womb, even while it’s just a bunch of cells, that the soul is present and a real human being is present and growing. This is why we are against any forms of after morning pills or abortions.
We see here Jesus as a newly conceived embryo, blessing St John, and St John leaping in the womb! They are both working in this mystery to demonstrate life has begun in the womb at the earliest stages of conception. This goes against the modern un-Christian ideas that it’s only at birth that a human is born and that before birth it’s just an embryo or fetus that can be discarded. This is clearly rejected and proven wrong through this wonderful pre-birth experience of our Lord meeting St John, while they’re still in the womb.
What else can we learn from this beautiful reading? As Orthodox Christians we call St Mary the Theotokos, the bearer or mother of God. Some people object to this. They don’t like that we call St Mary Mother of God and say this isn’t biblical. But what does St Elizabeth say? She calls St Mary the “mother of my Lord”.
The word Lord, in Greek is Kyrios. In the Septuagint Old Testament, which is the Old Testament used by the Apostles, and is the Old Testament used by our Church, this word, Lord or in Greek Kyrios, is used in the place of the Hebrew term Yahweh. Yahweh was the name of God in the Old Testament, it was considered so holy and sacred, that the Jews were not allowed to say this word out allowed, so they made a new word to pronounce the name of God, Adonai. Kyrios or Lord was the word used to replace the Hebrew word Yahweh and Adonai, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
So when in the New Testament, which was also written in Greek, St Elizabeth says the Mother of my Lord, it is without a doubt the same thing as saying: the Mother of my Yahweh, mother of my Adonai, the Mother of my God.
Remember that St Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit which urged her to utter these words. The Holy Spirit, God Himself, guided St Elizabeth to call St Mary Mother of Kyrios, Mother of God. The early Church Fathers use this as an example, that God Himself has called St Mary Theotokos, through the mouth of St Elizabeth. And she is very rightly called the Mother of God. Because she gave birth to God made man. Jesus our Lord. So once again we demonstrate that as Orthodox Christians, we are simply following God’s lead, through the Biblical example of St Elizabeth, in calling St Mary the Theotokos, the mother of God.
What else can we learn from this reading today? We hear St Mary say: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
Here we see St Mary call our Lord Jesus saviour. In other words she proclaims that she needed a saviour. St Mary was not free from the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve. Even though she was so holy, she was the only woman in the history of humanity that was chosen to bear God the word in her womb, she needed a saviour. A saviour from what?
St Mary, while so holy and spotless, was one day destined to die. She was not free from the curse uttered upon our ancestors and which we were all subject to, that one day we would face the consequence of Adam’s sin, being death. But Jesus became man through St Mary and died in our place. He offered his sinless body to death, filled with His Divinity, because he was truly God and Man in one person, one nature or hypostasis.
He offered Himself to death and destroyed death. He then rose from the dead, conquering death once and for all for all humanity. And he also did this for St Mary. He conquered death and healed the human nature, giving her the capacity to also partake of the fruits of the resurrection and find healing salvation through her saviour.
Without Jesus brothers and sisters we would be all doomed to death and eternal separation from God, even St Mary. She was not immune from the effects of the fall. But through his coming into the world he has healed us all and given us life. And if we remain faithful to Him, as St Mary was all the days of her life, then he has promised us He will come and dwell in our hearts. We will also become God bearers through the Spirit and He will impart to us resurrection and eternal life forever more.
We will never be as blessed as St Mary, she alone was worthy to bear God the word, but we are called to emulate, to copy her example and to zealously love the Lord; to thirst for the Lord and have Him also come and dwell in our hearts. Of course there’s allot more we can learn from this wonderful reading but for the sake of time, let us take this today and allow what we have learnt to grow deeper in our love for the Lord.
This Christmas as we approach the blessed feast of the Nativity, may we love God with all our being, fast, pray and give our whole selves to God. May we also be filled with the Holy Spirit and utter a praise like St Mary, glorifying our beloved Lord Jesus in thanksgiving, and also become bearers of God, being filled with the Holy Spirit and celebrate Christmas the way God wants us to, in deep love for God and one another.
Glory be to God forevermore, amen.