22 August 2020, Mary, Mother and Queen

A sermon preached in Keble College Chapel, Oxford for SMMS by The Reverend Canon Professor Sarah Foot

Ps 112 (113); Isaiah 9: 1-7 Luke 1: 26-38

+ ‘He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.’ (Luke 1: 32)

In 2013, I helped to lead a pilgrimage from Christ Church Cathedral to the seven churches of Asia Minor to which the angel had instructed John the Divine to send a letter. We visited these in an order determined more by geography and modern Turkish roads than by the order of the letters in Revelation, so that it happened that we started in Pergamum, and did not visit Ephesus (to whom John had written first) until right at the end of our trip. More is preserved at Ephesus of the late Roman city and its public (and domestic) buildings than we were able to see at any of the other sites on our tour and (apart from some hilarious inaccuracies and misunderstandings of classical culture in the local guides’ prepared speeches), it proved a fascinating visit and fitting climax to the pilgrimage. But for me the delight of this place lay not in any of the Roman remains, but in the surprisingly extensive ruins of the church of the blessed Virgin, close to the town’s harbour, a short walk from the main site. 

This church probably dates from the fourth century, and its interest for us as pilgrims, and for all church historians, is two-fold. First, this building is the earliest known church in Christendom dedicated to Our Lady Although there are frescoes depicting the Virgin in the catacombs in Rome dating back to the second century, the first churches built in her honour in Rome date only from the fifth and sixth centuries. And second, the Ephesus church of Mary is important because, as you will all know, it was in this building (or so a sixth-century inscription found at the site maintains) that the eastern emperor Theodosius II convened the Third Ecumenical Council in the year 431. This Council, looking to find theological consensus among the different churches, reaffirmed the credal statements agreed at Nicaea in 325, but it also made a very important statement about the status of Mary and the significance of her bearing of Christ.

Early Christian debates about the Virgin were intimately bound up with contemporary arguments about the nature of Christ, particularly about how his divine and human aspects should be understood. Orthodoxy as enshrined in early creeds and councils, sought to establish a middle way between divergent opinions that disagreed over whether there could be anything of the material world about Jesus, or whether this Jewish baby, born to Joseph and his betrothed, could ever really be God. Christ was human, the creeds proclaimed – he was a man, not an angel or pure spirit – but at the same time, he was also divine. He was both Perfect Man and Perfect God. And this is where Mary came to play such an important part. She was – self-evidently – the mother of the human side of Jesus; it was the fruit of her own womb whom she laboured to bring forth into that cold stable in Bethlehem. 

But the Council of Ephesus in 431 enshrined as doctrine the belief that Mary was also the mother of Jesus’ divine nature, arguing that his two natures could not be divided. Denying the teaching of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who wanted to say that Mary was only the Mother of Christ the Man, the Council declared her to be Theotokos, literally God-bearer, the one who brought forth God. The decrees of the Ephesus council made it heresy to believe anything otherwise. Mary was thus both the mother of the human Christ child, but also of the God-Man. In the Latin of the western Church, the Greek title Theotokos became Mater Dei, mother of God. In affirming Mary’s central role in Christ’s incarnation, the Council at Ephesus thus reasserted the union of the human and divine in the person of Jesus, the earthly man who was simultaneously the divine Logos who had existed before all time. He is ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ (Rev 22: 13) And Mary was mother of both his human and divine natures.

Belief that Christ was divinely conceived derives, of course, first from the evidence provided by the passage we heard read from Luke’s gospel. These familiar words describe how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to the virgin, whose name was Mary. (Luke 1: 26) The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the most high would overshadow her; ‘and so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.’ (Luke 1: 35) That infancy narrative is unique to Luke, but the gospels all provide further evidence of Jesus’ filial relationship with the Father. 

At his baptism, for example, when the voice was heard from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight’ (Matt 3: 17). Similarly, at the Transfiguration, when Jesus talked on the mountain top to Moses and Elijah and God spoke again, affirming his joy in his beloved Son (Matt 17: 5). In his final discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly emphasised his one-ship with the Father, dwelling on the ways in which the Father might be glorified in the Son (John 14: 13) And after he had breathed his last on the cross, the centurion in Mark’s gospel proclaimed, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!’ (Mark 15: 39)

In order that he might be shown to fulfil the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures and to be the promised Messiah, Jesus needed not just to be holy and the Son of God; he had also to be the Son of Man and specifically heir to the house of David. As the angel went on to say to Mary: ‘He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.’ (Luke 1: 32) The earliest Christian writings affirmed the central importance of Jesus’ Davidic lineage. Matthew’s gospel asserted Jesus’ descent from David 12 times, Mark mentioned it five and Luke on eight occasions; the same notion appeared (more obliquely) in John’s gospel, and also in the book of Acts and in three places in the Revelation to John.[1] Jesus was the Son of God ‘who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead’, as St Paul wrote to the Romans (Rom 1: 3-4). Whereby did Jesus obtain his descent from David? 

Both Matthew and Luke explicitly traced Jesus’ Davidic descent through Joseph, by making him a member of the House of David and declaring him to have been Jesus’ father by legal adoption. There are problems here, however, not least that Matthew traced Joseph’s descent from David via his son Solomon (Matt 1: 6), whereas Luke made him a descendant of the non-royal Nathan (Luke 3: 31). Theologians in the Early Church struggled to reconcile these inconsistencies with their firm belief in the fact that Christ was indeed of the family of David ‘according to the flesh’ as well as the Son of God ‘truly born of a virgin according to the will and power of God’, as Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church at Smyrna (Letter to Smyrna I.1). An obvious solution to the dilemma was to argue that Mary, also, was a member of the family of David. Ignatius clearly believed this, as did a number of other early Christian writers. In his dialogue with the Jewish Trypho, Justin Martyr used Jesus’ Davidic heritage as a way of emphasising the Jewishness of Jesus’ birth. He used Isaiah’s words, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?’ to provide the context in which to interpret the prophecy of the following verse: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7: 13-14). Repeatedly, Justin insisted that Mary was of the family of David, saying ‘this Christ, Son of God, who was before the morning star and the moon, submitted to become incarnate, and be born of this virgin of the family of David’ (Dial. 45). And again, ‘He said then that He was the Son of man … because of His birth by the Virgin, who was, as I said, of the family of David’ (Dial. 100).[2]

It was, of course scarcely implausible that Joseph would have betrothed himself to a girl from his extended clan group. Tertullian, who also maintained that Jesus was descended from David through Mary, argued that Mary’s explicit inclusion in the Emperor Augustus’s census in David’s hometown of Bethlehem supports such a view (Apol. 9) Andrew of Crete, writing in the eighth century, went further, arguing that before her marriage Mary would have had no obligation to travel to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the census unless she were also descended from David.[3] Mary’s descent from David similarly supports a literal reading of Paul’s emphatic statement that Jesus was descended from David ‘according to the flesh’, even though he did not have a human father. Thus, belief in the Davidic descent of both Joseph and Mary became an essential part of the doctrine of the simultaneously divine and human Christ. Could such a belief be sustained exegetically with reference to the gospel?

Let me take you back to the beginning of our passage from the first chapter of Luke, a reading with which we are all deeply familiar from a lifetime of carol services. ‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David’. Some early commentators, including Origen and John Chrysostom, took this text to explain Mary’s descent from David by arguing – not implausibly – that the phrase ‘betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph’ is a parenthetical intrusion into the passage. Originally the text would have read simply ‘to a virgin of the House of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary’. 

If we took out the clause about Joseph, Luke would have described Mary exactly as he had earlier described Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah: ‘His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth’. (Luke 1: 5). The mention of Joseph breaks the flow in Luke’s introduction of Mary, and one could argue that it was added to the sentence later to make the reference to Joseph in chapter 2 seem less jarring: ‘Joseph went up to Judea to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, and with him went Mary, his betrothed’. And if we read the sentence in chapter 1 as affirming Mary’s descent from David, it makes a lot more exegetical and theological sense of the angel’s declaration that God will give to Mary’sson ‘the throne of his ancestor David’ (1: 32). Luke reinforces this notion a little further on in the same chapter, in words spoken by John the Baptist’s father Zechariah in the Benedictus: ‘He has raised up a mighty saviour for us, in the house of his servant David’ (Luke 1: 69).

To argue that both Mary and Joseph belonged to the lineage of David serves to provide a genealogical underpinning for the statements about Jesus’ messianic status that occur in all four gospels without any need to start arguing that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son. The evangelists were all concerned to emphasise the potential that Jesus offered to fulfil Old Testament prophecies and to deliver divine justice and messianic kingship for the people of Israel. As eschatological heir to the throne of David, they believed that he would reign for ever when he came in glory. His role as redeemer of Israel rested on both his familial earthly inheritance and on his incarnation as the Son of God. In the person of Mary, mother of God, those two natures came together in the person of the infant Christ, born in the city of his mother’s ancestor, David.

Today, on the octave of the feast of the Assumption we celebrate Mary as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven (a title granted her by Pope Pius XII in 1954 in his encyclical Ad caeli reginam). As the pope wrote then, ‘From the earliest ages of the church a Christian people, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis, has addressed prayers of petition and hymns of praise and veneration to the Queen of Heaven. And never has that hope wavered which they placed in the Mother of the Divine King, Jesus Christ; nor has that faith ever failed by which we are taught that Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, reigns with a mother’s solicitude over the entire world, just as she is crowned in heavenly blessedness with the glory of a Queen.’

As we ready ourselves to receive the body of her Son in this holy Eucharist, let us remember the devotion and obedience of the young woman of the lineage of the House of David, whom God chose to be the bearer of his only begotten Son, the Theotokos.

Almighty and everlasting God, who by the co-operation of the Holy Spirit prepared the body and soul of the glorious Virgin-Mother Mary to become a dwelling-place meet for thy Son: grant that, as we rejoice in her commemoration, so by her fervent intercession we may be delivered from present evils and from everlasting death. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1]           Figures from Markus Bockmuehl, ‘The Son of David and his mother’, Journal of Theological Studies 62 (2011), 476-93, p. 478.

[2]           Bockmuehl, ‘The Son of David and his mother’, pp. 483-4.

[3]           Bockmuehl, p. 484, quoting Andrew of Crete, Marian Homily 3.

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