Mr. Brandon Smee
Postulant for Priesthood
Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey
I’ve observed a pattern among Episcopalians: if you poll a room of us, you’ll likely find that the majority come from another tradition. I myself grew up in a church where the feast we’re celebrating tonight, the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was totally unknown. In that Wesleyan denomination, Mary was a bit of a problem. She was seen as a root of idolatry and all sorts of theological shenanigans. My disposition toward Mary only worsened in college when my non-denominational church took me to the streets to convert people away from traditions that lift up her name in prayer. Yet, in the years since taking my first steps into the broader Christian tradition here at St. Mary’s, I have come to know her not as something to avoid, but as a blessing to embrace.
Tonight we enter into Mary’s conception. In our church calendar one can find three kinds of feasts. Some celebrate holy people whose lives revealed and still reveal the person of Jesus. Others center ideas that ground our doctrine of who Jesus is and how he saves us. And still others recall key moments in salvation history and call us to participate in the reality of God’s saving work. This feast does all three. First, it remembers Mary, the Blessed Virgin, mother of Jesus our Savior. Second, for many Western Chrisitans, it celebrates a doctrine which explains how Mary was set apart to bear and raise the Christ. And third, it marks a key moment in salvation history and invites us to encounter it in holy time.
Despite popular misunderstandings, this feast does not commemorate the conception of Jesus, but instead it bends time back to the conception of Mary. Tradition holds that Mary’s conception was miraculous. St. Anne and St. Joachim, Mary’s parents, were unable to have children. Anne, like the Old Testament Hannah, mother of Samuel, cried out to the Lord for a child, promising to dedicate it to God. The Lord answered her prayer, and she miraculously conceived. With a silent and invisible hand, God gives life to all people, but, in Mary’s case, God openly intervened for a holy purpose. On one level, Mary’s conception manifests God’s mercy to Anne and Joachim. Yet God intervenes not just for Mary’s parents, but for all creation, as Mary’s conception marks the moment in the human story where the gloom of night begins to kindle with the light of a new, rising sun.
As Gabriel announces to Mary in our Gospel text, God favors her for a purpose. The Father’s will is for her to carry the eternal Son, and more than that, to raise the child Jesus into the person of Christ. And when the angel says: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he discloses a favor that precedes the Messiah’s presence in her womb, a reality that goes back to her beginning. From Mary’s conception, she is the condition for Jesus’ coming and messiahship, the occasion for God’s gracious action in history. In that moment, the Almighty set her apart as an ark for the Holy Spirit’s work. God’s purposes are from everlasting, and Mary’s conception is the manifestation in time of God’s eternal purpose to bring Christ into the world and to raise up a savior. In her beginning salvation and new creation draw near.
In the story of the original creation in Genesis, we read how our first parents became alienated from God and found enmity with the serpent who tempted them. The fall of Adam and Eve represents the state of all humanity, equipped with all the knowledge of good and evil but powerless to find our Creator, and, when the Lord of Life finds us, unable to bear the holy presence without fear. Hiding ourselves from the Hand that formed us, humankind adds sin to sin until it pervades our world like carbon suffusing the atmosphere. In this condition we groan for the world to be renewed. Mary, in the midst of this, is the beginning of a new creation. This is why the church has called her the new Eve. The original Eve sinned first and then Adam fell; the new Eve comes first and bears the new, sinless Adam. The first Eve was destined to be the mother of all living; the new Eve is the mother of Life itself. And while the first Eve was clothed with animal skins that suffered corruption, the new Eve is clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars of a new world. Mary’s conception reverses the subjugation of women in the name of Eve’s sin and elevates all womankind in the favor God pours out on her. In her the brokenness of all humanity is mended. Where in the story of our first parents and the serpent we hear the finality of God’s “NO” to sin and estrangement from humanity, in Mary’s conception we hear still and small God’s yes to holy love and intimacy, a “YES” that resounds in every people and nation in Christ.
In Mary, God purposes to come near to us in Jesus Christ. Her beginning is the penultimate step of Christ’s divine descent. Here at her conception is the promise of the New Testament in embryonic form. In her the stump of Jesse, King David’s line, buds and prepares to bloom. In her sounds the last gasp of a doomed world before the new breath of redemption. In her the running waters of prophecy join in one mighty stream. Divine favor pours into the world through this one woman.
Mary’s conception reveals that God’s grace and mercy are not locked up in heaven, but embodied here on earth. The Holy One sheds the light of grace on Anne’s womb so that grace itself might come to life in Mary’s. Mary’s conception is unlike any other. As Gabriel says, she is favored to be the life that brings the Savior into the world and to raise him into the full stature of his calling. The Holy and Living One comes through for us in a thing too small for our eyes to see, yet so great that its consequences thunder through the years. All our hopes flow through God’s gracious intervention in Mary’s beginning.
The Virgin Mary’s conception is unlike any other, and yet it is also just like all others. In the silent, unseen working of God’s hand we each find favor at our beginnings. The Holy One purposed for Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and there is a purpose for each of us in Christ which God foreknew even when we were conceived. The powers of this world presume to have their own ends for us, using us to realize their selfish ambitions, discarding us when we exhaust our utility. But there remains a purpose for us from on high, a calling we hear when the Word of God transforms our hearts, a favor that marks us in the waters of baptism. As Revelation 12 says, we all are Mary’s children. If we choose to receive our maternal inheritance, we also let our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit, spaces where Jesus comes to dwell. God is working the new creation through each of us with a purpose that goes back to our beginning. And although we come from many roads and beginnings to this holy feast, we find here the mother of our favor, for we have found God’s favor in her. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!