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What does it mean to be blessed?

‘Blessed’ is not a word we hear or use much. We may speak of someone being ‘fortunate’ or ‘lucky’ or even ‘loaded’. We might use the word instead of a much worse one beginning with ‘b’; ‘that blessed tap’s dripping again’. At this time of year, we might use it in a better way as we wish someone a ‘blessed Christmas’ or the ‘blessings of season.’
When we bless someone or something, we ask, or even bestow God’s favour. We often talk of blessing the bread and wine at communion. Our service today will end with the blessing. Those of you who know the ways of the church know that it is only those ordained as priest in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches who have the churches authority to bless in an official sense. Yet we all rightly bless one another. I know that if I sneeze, someone will say ‘God bless you’.
Today, our gospel reading focuses on Mary, the mother of Jesus, the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ or ‘BVM’ as she is often referred to. In her song known as the Magnificat set down for us by Luke, she remarks how from now on all generations will call me blessed. But it is in her encounter with her relative, Elizabeth that she is specially singled out as blessed. Elizabeth exclaims: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ (Luke 1.42)
In church circles, the higher up the candle you go, the higher or more catholic the church, Mary is ever more revered. For Roman Catholics, she is a key mediator in prayer. Ave Maria, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.’ This prayer, known as the ‘Hail Mary’, incorporates that greeting of Elizabeth and is committed to memory by all in that Christian tradition. In those circles, Mary’s blessedness gives her a special place in which her prayers continue on behalf of those who call upon her.
For those of us in more mainstream Anglican and other protestant traditions, Mary still has a special place in our hearts as the mother of Jesus and an example of one willing to do the will of God. Yet we would not regard her as a mediator for our prayers. Each of us as redeemed sinners in Christ has ‘boldness to approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ (Hebrews 4.16) As the writer to the Hebrews puts it again at the end of our New Testament reading today: ‘And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.’ (Hebrews 10.10) Jesus, both because of who he is and because of the sacrifice of the cross is the one through whom we can all make our prayers to God who ever we may be. While we share in the communion of saints including Mary who is called blessed, we do not see her or any of the other saints needing to be mediators for our prayers.
So, what does it mean for Mary to be called blessed?
Firstly, it does not mean that she understands Jesus, her first born son. How many mums really understand their children? I am not going to push that one! Did Mary have any special insight or revelation as to the nature of Jesus’ ministry? The words of her song; the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) draw heavily upon the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel. (1 Samuel 2.1-10) Mary accepts from the teaching of the old testament that her son will be one through who God will bless his people and reverse their fortunes. By him, the hierarchies of society will be reversed. The poor will have a high place in his kingdom while the rich will be brought low. But when Jesus is twelve and manages to stay behind in the Jerusalem temple causing Mary and Joseph to panic, Luke tells us that they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2.50) In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus is in Capernaum and the crowds are going wild, we are told that rather than supporting him, his family tried to restrain him. (Mark 3.21) Yet, Luke who just possibly knew Mary late in life, speaks twice of her ‘treasuring these words and pondering them in her heart’ (Luke 2.19 and 51) He says this of Mary after the shepherds had shared their experiences with her and after the words, she did not understand following Jesus’ misadventure in the temple. Mary is not blessed because she understood everything, but because she pondered.
Secondly, she is not blessed because of her status, her place in society. In Britain today, we are very coy about talking about our status. We don’t want to be thought of as posh or working class, but for many of us, the area of town in which we live and the places in which we socialize will say something about where we see ourselves on that unseen ladder. For the people of Mary’s day, it was much more defined as it still is for many from middle eastern societies. It would be a terrible thing to act in such a way as to bring shame on your family. The account of Mary visiting Elizabeth is full of things which upset the social order. Mary as an unmarried woman would not be expected to make a solo journey of seventy miles from Nazareth to a Judean town in the hill country, a journey possibly longer than the one to Bethlem which we make so much of in the Nativity plays. It is possible she was chaperoned by an unnamed person. Elizabeth is her relative, often thought to be her cousin. She was considerably older than Mary and her husband, Zechariah, was a priest in the temple, so her status was much higher than Mary’s, yet it is Mary who greets her according to the biblical account, reversing the accepted way of doing things. In response to this unexpected greeting, a greeting from one of lower account, the unborn John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. It is this outpouring of the Spirit which brings about Mary’s blessedness, not her status or lack of it.
Thirdly, Mary is not blessed because of her background, her upbringing or her family tree. Matthew and Luke both provide a genealogy, a family tree for Jesus, but trace his line from Joseph whom Matthew notes is married to Mary. That was usual practice for that time and place. Today, we give full account of the female line. We know nothing of Mary’s family other than that being related in some way to Elizabeth. While the bible declares Jesus to be of the line of king David, he does not achieve this from Mary. Indeed, the fact that she and Joseph were not married at the time of his birth would have been scandalous in itself.
So, if Mary is not blessed because of her knowledge or her status or her family tree, why is she so blessed by Elizabeth and by us all? It is surely simply on account of her faith. Mary hears the call from God through Gabriel to be the mother of Jesus. Her response is ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.38) In Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit recognises that faith and blesses it. It is faith found in one of no great standing, worldly wisdom or high birth. It is faith in the will of God to which we are all called.
Elizabeth first blesses Mary personally: ‘Blessed are you among women.’ (Luke 1.42) She then changes from the second to the third person; ‘blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’ (Luke 1.45) Blessed is she/he who believed there would be fulfilment of what was spoken to her/him from the Lord. Those words are for us all. The Lord speaks to you in church, the bible, through Christmas and in your heart. Will you respond with Mary’s faith and share her blessing? Will you ponder these things in your hearts?
Advent 4 23.12.2018

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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