The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, which has its parallel in Lent with Laetare Sunday. Both “Gaudete” and “Laetare” mean the same thing: rejoicing. Since both days fall in seasons that used to be regarded as penitential seasons, it has become a day to lighten up a bit and shift the focus from self-examination to the things that bring joy to these seasons of preparation. In Advent, that would be the gift of God’s Son our Savior Jesus Christ. In Lent, that would be not only His sacrifice for our sins but also His triumphant Resurrection from the dead that has conquered sin and death and ensured our place in His eternal Kingdom. Mary seemed to understand much of this when she opened her glorious Magnificat with these words: “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
The third Sunday of Advent is also traditionally the Sunday when we take a special look at Mary the mother of our Savior. In his Advent message to the diocese, our Bishop Alberto Morales referred to Mary as the first tabernacle of Jesus: specifically her womb. The veneration of Mary is something that varies widely within the Christian community, everywhere from almost deifying her to throwing her out with the bath water in an attempt to avoid exaggerated Catholic veneration. This past Thursday was the day that the Church of England observes as the “Conception of the Virgin Mary,” the same day that the Roman Church observes as the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.” The theological difference is significant, and decidedly is among the things that differentiate most churches of the Reformation from the Western Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church essentially builds an extra fence around the sinlessness of Jesus by asserting that Mary herself was “immaculately conceived,” that is, that she was born without the stain of original sin. Apart from Luther, all leaders of the Reformation rejected this teaching, asserting that the sinlessness of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, in no way required Mary to have been born without sin and to have remained sinless throughout her entire life. That teaching was not made an official dogma of the Catholic Church until 1854 and was rejected even by St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most important figures in the history of Catholic theology. The Orthodox Church also rejects as unnecessary the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness, as its view of original or “ancestral” sin is that it’s something in which everyone but Jesus Himself directly participates and for which everyone bears personal responsibility, not something that is inherited through Adam’s fall. The Orthodox Church teaches that once Jesus came into Mary’s womb, He purified her so that she remained sinless thereafter. Both the Eastern and the Western Church positions rest entirely on tradition and cannot be supported Scripturally, a fact that is readily admitted, for example, in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
And so, what should we make of the Virgin Mary? At the very least, we have clear Biblical statements that Mary is blessed, indeed that she is blessed above all other women. In the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you, Mary, for you have found favor with God!” (Luke 1:28, 30). Then, in the Visitation, Elizabeth cries out loudly to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42, 45). And so in her Magnificat that immediately follows Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary herself says, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). That constitutes potent testimony to Mary’s special status as the God-bearing Virgin mother.
What, then, is my point? It’s just that it’s a huge mistake in Protestantism to overreact to a Catholic tradition that lacks Scriptural support by failing to recognize at all the unique blessedness of Mary, the one “blessed among (all) women,” the one chosen to bear the Son of God, the one entrusted with raising Him from infancy, the one whose role in His childhood had to have been of very great importance. How many women would consider themselves worthy of such an honor? And with such an honor comes immense responsibility, also something of which few women would feel entirely worthy.
So we have cast a brief look at what others say about Mary. But what do we learn when we look at what Mary herself had to say? The truth is that there are not very many additional references to Mary once we get past the birth narratives. We have the flight into Egypt, the Presentation and Purification in the temple and the Passover temple visit when Jesus stays behind to discourse with the rabbis. Later we have Mary coming along with Jesus’ brothers, asking to see Jesus (Mark 3:31-35), the occasion on which Jesus responds, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and my mother.” We have the wedding at Cana where Mary informs Jesus that the wine has run out and Jesus responds with the much-misunderstood and mistranslated words, “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour is not yet come.” And, of course, we have the very tender moment at the Cross when Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother,” effectively entrusting His mother’s care to John, a charge that John immediately accepts. And last, we have the mention of Mary as being among those who returned to the Upper Room after the Resurrection to engage in prayer (Acts 1:14). In most of these incidents we see a woman who is completely human and whose emotions typify those of a caring mother who occasionally struggles to understand her Son.
The truth is that when we come to Mary’s own words in her Magnificat, we learn more than we can find in all other references to her combined. She begins with praising God: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Then immediately she reveals her true self by saying that God has taken notice of the humble estate of His handmaiden. Humility clearly seems always to characterize Mary. After the shepherds come to the manger, report everything that they have heard from the angelic announcement, see baby Jesus, and go out proclaiming what they have seen and heard, we read that “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). And, after losing Jesus, finding Him in the temple and returning to Nazareth, we read again that Mary “was treasuring all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).
This was no Little League mom out promoting her Son’s extraordinary abilities. Even at the wedding in Cana when Mary comes closest to prevailing on her Son’s gifts, she simply informs Him of the situation and tells the servants to do whatever He asks of them. Mary is the model of humility. At the same time she shows a complete awareness of what God is doing in and through her. She says, “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” And yet in her very next statement she acknowledges that “His mercy is on (all) those who fear Him, from generation to generation.”
This recognition of God’s unfailing mercy, His covenantal favor or “chesed,” evokes from her a recalling of the ways that God has revealed Himself in times past. It’s actually a remarkable witness to the knowledge of Biblical history that this very young teenager possesses. Clearly her parents, Anna and Joachim, brought her up to know the stories of God’s dealings with His people. She says that “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.”
We can’t know what specific examples of these things may have been going through Mary’s mind, but we can think of many ourselves. The point is that Mary had a profound understanding of how God acts in relationship to His people. And she adds one final sentence that pulls together God’s past actions with what He is doing now in her own experience. She says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy; as He spoke to our forefathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.” I find it interesting that every one of the three great Lukan canticles, the Magnificat of Mary, the Benedictus of Zacharias and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, place the coming of Jesus in the context of God’s covenantal promises to Abraham and Israel. For me this is among the most compelling statements of the continuity between the old revelation and the new. God has acted in the past; God was acting in the present for Mary, Zacharias and Simeon; and God continues to act in our time. He will act in the age to come. As Mary said, “His mercy is on all those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
The power of these words from her heart is so great that they are repeated every single day, thousands if not millions of times, the world around. They’ve been given countless brilliant musical settings, and many new ones are written every year. They’re part of every Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Evening Prayer and Evensong. They resonate in our hearts as we look deeply into the heart of Mary the Virgin Mother of Jesus the King. And, in this Advent season, may they once again prepare us to receive our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He came. He’s coming today. And He’s coming again.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
 "Like other human beings, such as St John the Baptist, whose conception and birth are festivals of the Church, the Holy Virgin was born under the law of original sin, sharing with all other human beings their common responsibility for the fall." Vladimir Lossky, "Panagia," in E. L. Mascall, ed., The Mother of God: A Symposium by Members of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959. Page 31.
 No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture. The salutation of the angel Gabriel, chaire kecharitomene, Hail, full of grace indicates a unique abundance of grace, a supernatural, godlike state of soul, which finds its explanation only in the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But the term kecharitomene serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma. (AH: “full of grace” is not the natural translation of kecharitomene: cf. Eph. 1:6, Acts 6:8, Sirach 18:7 LXX)