Mary, Mother of God – an Advent Sermon by Stanley Hauerwas

St Mary’s Cathedral Christmas Lights 2013

“Do you believe in the virgin birth?” That was the question people asked one another when I was a boy growing up in that Southern Baptist dominated land called Texas. It was the question because how you answered would indicate who you were, what you believed, as well as where you stood in the world. If you expressed any doubts about the birth of Jesus by a virgin, you were identified as one of those liberals that did not believe that the Bible was inspired. That is to put the matter in too general terms. It was not that you not only failed to believe the Bible was inspired, but you refused to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired.

Refusal to believe in the virgin birth also entailed ethical and political implications. If you did not believe in the virgin birth, you were probably a person of loose morals which meant you also wanted to destroy everything we hold dear as Americans. In particular, if you did not believe in the virgin birth, it was assumed you did not believe in the sacredness of the family and, if you did not believe in the sacredness of the family, it meant you were an enemy of the democratic way of life. In short, a failure to believe in the virgin birth was a sure indication that you were a person not to be trusted.

One of the anomalies – at least, what I take to be an anomaly – of this use of the virgin birth to determine one’s standing in the world is those that used the virgin birth as the test case for moral rectitude often seemed to forget who it was that was the virgin. What was crucial for those that used the virgin birth in the manner I am describing is what seemed to matter to them was some woman that was a virgin had given birth. It did not seem to matter if Mary was the one that had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit.

But Isaiah does not say that “a” virgin or young woman will bear a child. Isaiah says “the” young woman will bear a child (Isaiah 7:10-16). “The” is a definite article indicating that not anyone would give birth and still be a virgin, but someone in particular would be a virgin mother. We did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the mother of Jesus, but we knew it would be a “the.” Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry Jesus would be named “Mary.”

That “the” made all the difference for how the church fathers read this text. For them what was significant was that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the virgin. An indication of how important her singularity was regarded is that at Council of Ephesus in 431 she was given the name “Mary, the Mother of God.” That title meant that Mary is not a replaceable instrument in the economy of God’s salvation. Rather she is constitutive of God’s very life making it impossible to say God without also saying Mary.

Such a view of Mary, a view held throughout the Christian tradition, was not how those that used the virgin birth as a test understood matters. They had a high view of virginity, but a low view of Mary. They had a low view of Mary because the last thing they wanted was to be identified with the Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics even seemed to think you could pray to Mary. Those whose focus was primarily on the virgin birth assumed that such a prayer bordered on being idolatrous.

Those that used the virgin birth as a test to determine your character were and continue to be identified as people who are theologically and politically conservative. In general, that assumption is probably true. I think, however, this way of thinking about Christianity can also be found among those who represent more liberal theological and political positions. Conservatives and liberals alike assume that any account of Christianity that can pass muster in our time will be one in which the Christian faith is understood to be a set of strongly held ideas. Conservatives have the virgin birth and satisfaction theories of the atonement. Liberals have love and justice. Conservatives and liberals understand the Christian faith as a set of ideas because, so understood, Christianity seems to be a set of beliefs assessable to anyone upon reflection.

But then there is Mary. She is not just another young Jewish woman. She is the betrothed to Joseph. She has known no man yet she carries a child having been impregnated by the Holy Spirit. In Luke, we have her annunciation in which her “let it be” indicates her willingness to be the mother of the Son of God (Luke 1:38). In Matthew, we have the annunciation of Joseph who is told to take Mary for his wife and he faithfully does so (Matthew 1:16-18). Accordingly, Joseph is given the task of naming Mary’s baby. He names him Jesus, Emmanuel, because this child is the long awaited sign that “God is with us.” The son of David, the King of Israel, has been conceived and born.

Mary and Joseph are not ideas. They are real people who made decisions on which our faith depends. Christianity is not a timeless set of ideas. Christianity is not some ideal toward which we ought always to strive even though the ideal is out of reach. Christianity is not a series of slogans that sum up our beliefs. Slogans such as “justification by grace through faith” can be useful if you do not forget it is a slogan. But Christianity cannot be so easily “summed up” even by the best of slogans or ideas. It cannot be summed up because our faith depends on a young Jewish mother called Mary.

Mary and Joseph are real people who had to make decisions that determined the destiny of the world. Isaiah had foretold that a Mary would come, but we had no idea what Isaiah’s prophecy meant until Mary became the Mother of God. This is no myth. These are people caught up in God’s care of his people through the faithfulness of the most unlikely people. They are unlikely people with names as common as Mary and Joseph, but because of their faithfulness our salvation now depends on acknowledging those names.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time the church has given us in the hope we can learn to wait. To learn to wait is to learn how to recognize we are creatures of time. Time is a gift and a threat. Time is a gift and a threat because we are bodily creatures. We only come into existence through the bodies of others, but that very body destines us to death. We must be born and we must die. Birth and death are the brass tacks of life that make possible and necessary the storied character of our lives. It is never a question whether our lives will be storied, but the only question is which stories will determine our living in and through time.

Stories come in all shape and sizes. Some are quite short, such as the story of a young Texan trying to figure out what it means to believe or not believe in the virgin birth. Other stories are quite long, beginning with “In the beginning.” We are storied by many stories, which is an indication that we cannot escape nor should we want to escape being captured in and by time.

Jesus, very God, became for us time. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin named Mary. Jesus, so born, is very man. He is fully God and fully man making it possible for us to be fully human. To be fully human means that through his conception and birth we have become storied by Mary. We are Mary’s people.

What could it possibly mean that we are Mary’s people? In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor characterizes the time that constitutes our time as “empty.” By “empty” Taylor means as modern people we think of time as if it were a container that can be filled up by our indifferent likes and dislikes. As a result, our sense of time has a homogeneous character in which all events can be placed in unambiguous relations of simultaneity and succession. Taylor suggests our view of time has a corresponding account of our social world as one constituted by a horizontal space – that is, a space in which each of us has direct access to time without the assistance of a mediator.

If Taylor’s characterization of our time as empty – a characterization I suspect many of us will find forces a self-recognition we would prefer to avoid – is accurate, we can better understand why we have trouble knowing how to acknowledge we are Mary’s people. We may be ready to acknowledge that the stories that constitute our lives are ones we may not have chosen, but we nevertheless believe that when all is said and done we get to make our lives up. But Mary did not choose to be Mary, the one highly favoured by God. Rather, she willingly accepted her role in God’s salvation by becoming the mother of God – even while asking, “How can this be?”

How extraordinary it is that we know the name of our Lord’s mother! The time we live in as Christians is not empty. It is a time constituted by Isaiah’s prophecy that a particular young woman will bear a son whose name will be Immanuel. It is a time constituted by a young woman named Mary who was chosen by God to carry and give birth to one fully human and fully God. It is a time that is made possible by Joseph, her husband, who trusted in what he was told by the Holy Spirit. It is that time in which we exist. It is a time that gives us time in a world that thinks it has no time to worship a Lord who has Mary as a mother.

“Do you believe in the virgin birth?” was a question generated by a world that had produced people who feared they no longer knew the time they were in. That is, they had no other way to tell time but to think they must force time to conform to their fantasy that they could make time be anything they wanted it to be. “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” was a desperate question asked by a desperate people. It was a question asked by good people lost in a world they feared threatened all they held dear. Yet it was a question that could only distort the gospel by failing to see that the good news is Mary is the Mother of God. I fear, however, that question, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” remains in the hearts of many who count themselves Christians.

If you try to answer that question, I fear you will only distort the gospel. Mary, the Mother of God, is not an answer to that question. Mary, the Mother of God, is not an answer to any question. Mary, the Mother of God, is a declarative assertion that makes clear that it was from Mary that Jesus assumed our humanity by becoming a creature of time.

That Mary is the Mother of God means we do not begin with speculative accounts about God’s existence or nature. Our God is to be found in Mary’s womb. Because our God is to be found in Mary’s body we believe that same God desires to be taken in by us in this miraculous gift of the holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. By partaking of this gift, a gift that if pondered leads us to ask with Mary, “How can this be?” But the gift makes the question possible, because through this gift we become participants in a time that is filled with God’s providential care of us. We are Christians. We live in Mary’s time.

Such a time is anything but empty. Rather, it is a time storied by people whose lives witness to the Lord of time, the Lord who encompasses all life and death. I suggested above that there was a politics often associated with the question, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” There is also a politics that is entailed by our affirmation that Mary is the Mother of God. The politics of Mary is a politics of joy characteristic of a people who have no reason to be desperate. They have no reason to be desperate because they have faith in the Lord of time.

So, on this Sunday, a Sunday when Christmas seems so near, let us remember that because we are Mary’s people we are in no hurry. Let us wait in patience for the Christ-child whose own life depended on the lives of Mary and Joseph. The Word of God was made flesh. He came so that we might experience the fullness of time. Let us wait with Mary and Joseph for the child who will redeem all of time. Let us wait with patience and hope so that the world may discover that time is not empty; rather time remains pregnant with God’s promise found in Mary, the Mother of God.

Stanley Hauerwas is Senior Research Fellow at the Duke University Divinity School. His most recent books are Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church and Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life. This is a sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, on 22 December 2013.

27 thoughts on “Mary, Mother of God – an Advent Sermon by Stanley Hauerwas

  1. Sentimental. But is here a point to this sermon? I can’t see one, except t declare error.

    Jesus assumed our humanity by becoming a creature of time.

    I beg your pardon? He is the Word made flesh. He is begotten not made. He is not created, nor a creature, but the Creator. Nothing that was made was not made by Him. He is God. He was God. He always will be God.

    Our God is to be found in Mary’s womb.

    No. Mary is dead. She sleeps in Christ. Her womb has gone to dust.

    Our God is in our midst.

    Let us wait in patience for the Christ-child whose own life depended on the lives of Mary and Joseph.

    No. He grew up. He ministered under the leadership and anointing of the Spirit. He was approved of the Father. He said His life was in His power to give and to retrieve. He was set by God to seek and save the lost. He died. He was buried. He was raised. He is seated at the right hand of glory. He sent His Holy Spirit in His place.

    It’s not time to wait. It is time to get on with Christ’s commandments for the Church.

    Let us wait with patience and hope so that the world may discover that time is not empty; rather time remains pregnant with God’s promise found in Mary, the Mother of God.

    What does that sentence even mean?

    Where do you dig up this stuff, Greg?

  2. Jesus assumed our humanity by becoming a creature of time.

    You have great difficulty in comprehending anything other than simple sentences it would appear. Are you saying that in Jesus, God did not take on human form (a created being) that he did not empty himself to become human?

    Stanley is in this sentence saying that Jesus assumed our humanity – he emptied himself of his heavenly self and took his human self…becoming fully human whilst remaining fully divine he’s not saying that God was created – I can;t even see how you get to that from this sentence.

    Outside of his humanity Jesus was not a creature of time – he is eternal – he took on the form of a creature locked in time – as we are. Where is the difficulty in this?

    In those parts of the church where we follow the seasons of the church calendar – this time of Advent is used as a time fo waiting – it is a spiritual waiting – not a literal one, we know Jesus has already been born, died and risen – just because you don’t practice these sorts of spiritual practices doesn’t mean you can scoff at them as being pointless and of no use.

  3. OK, so it’s another one of those things where you have to be part of the in-crowd to know what is going on.

    Have you ever considered that this is one of the reasons people are shifting over to the easier-to-grasp contemporary churches who worked out long ago that the gospel had to be presented in a way in which the modern, unchurched person can understand it without losing the power of it?

    Maybe the uninitiated just don’t have a clue what is going on in traditional services. Even the language doesn’t make sense. I’m not really scoffing, just trying to make head or tail of what he is saying.

    Still can’t see where he s going with it, but if you’re waiting on God, fine.

  4. Well, I just read through it all again to make sure I don’t miss something, but I have to say it doesn’t take me anywhere in Christ. I am left bewildered by the preacher’s ideology.

    It is called a sermon, so I expect to be taken somewhere, offered a challenge, confronted with a spiritual truth, drawn to Christ, or repentance, or on to greater things in God, encouraged, exhorted, comforted.

    I recently discovered a site which has all of Wesley’s sermons on it, so I started reading one, ad I could not put it down. I was enthralled and taken deeper into a relationship with Christ and a recognition of my own part in the gospel, in the Christian community, and as an envoy of Christ to the world.

    When I hear, read or am engaged in a sermon I expect to be taken into my Bible to read along the texts presented by the preacher so I ca follow. I expect to be able t summon up any understanding of scripture I have to accompany the message being preached, ad I expect to be drawn into the grace and virtue of God by the experience.

    This definitely took place when reading that Wesley sermon. So much so that I determined to read more of his sermons because they had a gospel timelessness to them.

    I can get the same drawing to Christ from a Spurgeon sermon, even though he is a Calvinist, yet he draws on scripture ad the power of the gospel prevails through his theology.

    These people draw on the well of the Word and offer a drink of eternal life. That is the essence of a sermon.

    What find in the sermon here is a sentimental homily on Mary which goes nowhere.

  5. Paul sums up those who have a problem with the Theotokos

    1 Corinthians 2

    14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    What are you waiting for?

    Isaiah 40:31

    Yet those who wait for the Lord
    Will gain new strength;
    They will mount up with wings like eagles,
    They will run and not get tired,
    They will walk and not become weary.

    Pentecostals used to wait for the Holy Spirit to descend.

    Now He comes on the third song.

  6. Oh, good. Not waiting for Mary, then, Bones.

    I got the impression from the sermon that waiting was all about Mary, not waiting on the Lord.

    Are you saying that theotokos is from the Spirit of God? Spiritually appraised? Nah. Funny it doesn’t show up in the texts.

    The Greek has meter ton Kurion mon mother of my Lord. No sign of theotokos here, which was added much later at Ephesus on the 4th century, so why should I think or do anything about it?

    As I said, a few times now, the eastern Orthodox version is closer to ‘mother of my Lord’ than the Catholic Mother of God. Theotokos means ‘bear of one who is God, which is plausible, but the Catholic takes it too far.

    It is easier to spiritually appraise ‘mother of our Lord’ than Mother of God, which is spiritually bereft of truth.

  7. ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear in the biblical text either.

    But that’s ok.

    As I said, a few times now, the eastern Orthodox version is closer to ‘mother of my Lord’ than the Catholic Mother of God. Theotokos means ‘bear of one who is God, which is plausible, but the Catholic takes it too far.


    Theotokos is a compound of two Greek words, Θεός God and τόκος parturition, childbirth. Literally, this translates as God-bearer or the one who gives birth to God; historian Jaroslav Pelikan translated it more precisely as “the one who gives birth to the one who is God”.[7] However, since many English-speaking Orthodox find this literal translation awkward, in liturgical use, Theotokos is often left untranslated, or paraphrased as Mother of God. The latter title is the literal translation of a distinct title in Greek, Μήτηρ του Θεού (translit. Mētēr tou Theou). Mother of God also accurately translates the Greek words Θεομήτωρ (translit. Theomētor; also spelled Θεομήτηρ, translit. Theomētēr) and Μητρόθεος (translit. Mētrotheos), which are found in patristic and liturgical texts, e.g.

    … [80] περιφανῶς ἡ ἱερὰ θεομήτωρ ἐξετέλει … [109] ἐκφαντικώτατά σε τὴν θεοτόκον προσημαίνουσαν …[8]

    The English term Mother of God is mostly used as an imprecise translation of Theotokos, and frequently requires explanation.[9] The other principal use of Mother of God has been as the precise and literal translation of Μήτηρ Θεού, a Greek term which has an established usage of its own in traditional Orthodox and Catholic theological writing, hymnography, and iconography. In an abbreviated form ΜΡ ΘΥ it often is found on Eastern icons (see illustration above), where it is used to identify Mary.

  8. I got the impression from the sermon that waiting was all about Mary, not waiting on the Lord.

    Yeah that’s why the article writes

    Let us wait in patience for the Christ-child…

    But read into it what you want.

  9. ‘Jaroslav Pelikan translated it more precisely as “the one who gives birth to the one who is God”.’

    Which is a far better translation and far more acceptable, as I have said, but beyond this it is not. I still prefer ‘bearer of the one who is God’. If you have to throw around these completely unnecessary teachings go ahead. They change absolutely nothing for the Christian.

    I, like most Christians, never ever refer to Mary in prayer and it has never interfered with any prayer I have made to not include Mary or the saints or even think about Mary as any more but blessed amongst women and the mother of our Lord.

    For the Catholic it directs people to idolatry and false understanding of prayer, Mary’s role, theology and has been built into a completely unwarranted sideshow which has been promoted into false dogma.

    I never use the term ‘Trinity’ although I accept the premise. The word ‘Godhead’ is present in the texts and is sufficient and accurate.

    If the waiting being referred to was waiting on the Lord God only, why were we being encouraged to focus on Mary’s womb?

    Our God is to be found in Mary’s womb.

    Oh really? So we are being asked to wait on the Lord by looking into Mary’s womb?

    And we are to wait for the ‘Christ-child’? Huh?

    You consider this waiting on the Lord? I have news for you. Jesus grew up. He s not in the womb. The womb has gone to dust. Mary is sleeping in Christ. Jesus is a grown man. He is God. He is Man. He is the Mediator between men and God. He has been crucified. He died and was buried and raised. He is seated at the right hand of Glory.

    If you are going to wait on the Lord, at least get the right Lord to wait on.

  10. Let us wait with Mary and Joseph for the child who will redeem all of time. Let us wait with patience and hope so that the world may discover that time is not empty;

    Seems fairly standard eschatology to me. Waiting for the Second Coming.

    Obviously Steve doesn’t like it,

    Nor anything to do with Our Lady.

  11. Well, that’s somewhat different to waiting on The Lord like eagles so that our strength is renewed.

    But I have news for you, Bones. When Jesus comes again he’s not coming as a child. A Son, yes, but not a child.

    But which coming are you waiting for? His coming for the Church, or for the reckoning?

    Revelation 19:11-16
    Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:

  12. I, like most Christians, never ever refer to Mary in prayer

    You’d be wrong there Steve…the greater percentage of Christians are Anglican, Lutheran, or Anglican (or any of the other episcopal names), and most Catholics and Lutherans, and many Anglicans do refer to Mary in their prayers.

  13. Merry Christmas Greg. Hope 2014 is a better year for you. 2013 wasn’t one of my better ones either. Was it you who posted that article about the Carpenters? If so, really good question you posed there.

  14. Ah, yes, Bones. The rejection of Revelation. And now you call it a joke. I think it’ll be in you.

    The rest of us, who consider it part of the canon and an important book, continue to enjoy its unfolding grace and blessing.

    You can wait on the baby in the womb if you want, but it is sodden with futility, just like the notion of theotokos, or praying to or through Mary. We already know who Mary truly is, and where she is. She is sleeping in Christ awaiting the resurrection of the saints. That is enough.

    When Jesus comes he will come in power. Maranatha.

  15. ‘Merry Christmas Greg.’ Yes, belated one mate. You up these parts much. It would be good to catch up. Been too long.

  16. Actually Steve, horses and swords are so ancient. Surely Jesus would have an Abrams tank with a chain gun in his mouth.

    Besides, Jesus said He was coming back on a cloud.

    Maybe it was on a cloud shaped like a horse.

  17. I think you’re getting your advents mixed up, there, Bones.

    The fact is, when He comes, it won’t be out of a womb or as a child. He will come in power.

    As John says, we’ll not know what He’s like until He appears and is revealed, but we’ll be like Him when He is.

  18. ‘Merry Christmas Greg.’ Yes, belated one mate. You up these parts much. It would be good to catch up. Been too long.

    Not belated mate, Christmas is a period of time, not just one day…last until January 5th!

    I do get up there from time to time, and yes, it would be good to catch up.

    You, or anyone else who would like to, can call me on my mobile number, 0401996961…I’d love to hear from anyone.

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