Blessed Is She Who Believed

It is amazing how we sometimes in our reading of scripture pass by words and verses which convey themselves with such simplicity of flow and meaning, yet when we spiritually contemplate on those very words and verses we are stopped in our mental tracks. For our hearts and our minds are left gazing at the most amazing wonders ordained by God. In the end we are left praising with King David saying, "The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple." Ps 119:130 and "I have seen the consummation of all perfection, but your commandments are very broad" Ps 119:96.

st-mary"Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told to her from the Lord" was the simple, straightforward words, spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on St Elizabeth’s mouth in greeting St Mary. But when we pose two simple questions, why did St Elizabeth say these words to St Mary, and what is it that St Mary believed, we discover that these words had a significant depth which knows no bounds.

"Blessed is she who believed" is the testimony of the word of God about the amazing faith which St. Mary had. A faith which was greater than our father Abraham and to which scripture bears testimony saying, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense" Heb 11:17-19. It also says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God" Jam 2:23

St. Mary’s faith was greater, because she too offered up her only begotten Son, and unlike Abraham whom the Lord stopped at the last moment from offering his son, St Mary went through with the sacrifice and watched her beloved Son giving Himself up willingly on the cross for the salvation of the whole world. In Abraham’s case the knife was withheld from Isaac’s throat but in the case of St Mary, a sword was pierced through her soul. (Lk2:35) Yes the faith of one was greater than the other, but the faith of one was the example by which the other understood how God’s promises worked, how God never forgets those promises and how faith in those promises is ultimately rewarded in ways far more spectacular than one can imagine.

Abraham had to wait a long time to see the fulfillment of God’s promise. He had to leave his people and his homeland at a very old age and travel a long distance to a foreign land and live amongst foreign people. He settled in the most difficult terrain and had no children. All he had was God’s promise to him, "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" Gen 12:1-3 and his faith in that promise. Finally, after the very long wait and having begun to fulfill that promise by the birth of Isaac, God turns round and asks him to offer Isaac, that very son of promise. In faith Abraham did not hold back, and because of his faith God allowed him to see more wondrous things. In offering Isaac, Abraham saw the salvation which God would bestow upon our humanity and of which our Lord Jesus Christ said, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad" Jn 8:56. In offering Isaac the Lord said, "By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore… in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…" Gen 22:16-18. So Abraham in offering Isaac was promised that the Saviour will come from his people, "in your seed (singular) all nations shall be blessed", a promise which God fulfilled. Furthermore that everyone who believes in that Saviour will be considered a child of Abraham, a promise which will continue to be fulfilled until the end of time.

In the same way St. Mary, just like our father Abraham, waited and in some cases still waits to see the fulfillment of God’s promises. This is why St Mary praises God in the end of her glorification, remembering how God promised and how He rewarded the faith of Abraham and says, "In remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever" Lk 1:54-55.

Blessed is she who believed", is a testimony to the fact that St Mary believed things which were far beyond the understanding and thoughts of the greatest minds of men. Listen to what the Archangel Gabriel says to her in the annunciation, "Then the angel said to her ‘Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God, behold you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end’. Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ and the angel answered and said to Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God...then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word’."Lk 1:30-38. So what can we say that St Mary believed as a result of the words spoken to her by the angel?

Firstly St Mary believed that God could incarnate. This is a concept which to this day many in the world find hard to accept or understand. How can the creator of all things, this all knowing – all powerful Holy God who fills every place and every time, become incarnate i.e. become human. How are the words of the gospel response for the feast of Nativity, "The one without body became incarnate, and the Word took flesh. He who is without beginning, began and He who is above time became under time" possible? Truly the words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind, "Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Is 53:1, and yet St Mary believed without question in this possibility.

Secondly St Mary believed that God could form this humanity in her by the work of the Holy Spirit, without marriage or the intervention of a man. Every human being on this earth knows that a male and a female are required to form another human, yet St Mary asks the question, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" Surely the question for St Mary would be, "How can you say this, since by your very question you know how babies are formed, and is not Joseph your man?" Surely Joseph, whom, according to the father’s sayings, Divine providence has chosen for you when his staff blossomed is your man. What is then the purpose of your question St Mary? Was it a lack of faith like Zachariah the priest who asked the angel a similar question? No, it could not have been a lack of faith on the part of St Mary, otherwise the scripture would not have said "Blessed is she who believed..." and it would contradict everything we said thus far. Neither could it have been a lack of understanding for what the angel then tells her is more baffling to the ordinary person than the first statement. St Mary had faith and understanding beyond any measure, and thus she understood what she was asking and believed what was being said.

All things fall into context when we consider that it was always St Mary’s desire to live a celibate life for God. This agreement continued even after she became betrothed to St Joseph, and not even an archangel was going to cause her to deviate from that course. For with the wisdom of the ascetic fathers, St Mary knew before St Paul wrote it that, "Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" 2 Cor 11:14 and she also knew not to, "believe every spirit, but to test the spirits, whether they are from God..." 1 Jn 4:1. This is why we see a wonderful precision in scripture, for it says that St Mary was troubled, not at the appearance of the angel, but at his words. The words of this ministering spirit required analyses as it carried the danger of her breaking a vow to God, and hence the question generated itself, "How can this be, since I do not know a man". It carried the danger of being taken away by a moment of pride, and destroying ones entire spiritual life. This teaches us that faith is not blind, but comes with a degree of understanding. Even when what we are required to believe seems impossible, yet it must still conform to God’s commandments and the lives we lead in His Name. It also teaches us that faith understands and is understood best by those who are humble of heart.

St. Mary also believed that the humanity which God took from her was to be without sin because she was told, "the Holy One who is to born...", and one of the qualities of holiness, is that there is no blemish, imperfection or sin in Him. St. Mary also believed that at the moment the humanity is formed within her it will unite with the Divinity of Son of God, and that this humanity will belong to God, for the angel told her, "therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God..." She believed in what St Paul summarised so eloquently when he said, "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; God was manifest in the flesh" 1 Tim 3:16.

Bring to me the masters of theology, bring me St Athanasius who wrote "The Incarnation of the Logos", and St Cyril who defended St Mary and the title of "Theotokos", and St. John Chrysostom with his golden tongue and St. Gregory the theologian who spoke of the Divine things and many others whose words illuminate our patristic libraries. All these masters of theology had years to contemplate on these words of God, years of discipleship and scholarship under their belt, vast libraries to refer to for reference works, yet all of them would be students at the feet of St Mary the master theologian.

For this young lady understood in that very moment, without reference to books or scholars, the full magnitude and implication of what the angel had told her. What would have blown away the minds of many mortals, she accepted with all humility saying, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word’. We often make the mistake in thinking that theology and dogma is something reserved for theology students and scholars, but in truth every true Christian is a true theologian for they are able to understand God not by books and study, but more so by knowing God through their prayers, their sacramental life, and the word of God. They come to know God because God is in their daily lives, in everything that they think, or speak, or do. They come to know God through everything and everyone they interact with. They come to live God and say with St Paul, "It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me." Gal 2:20. They come to live for God "For me to live is Christ" Phil 1:21. They come to know God by faith and by being faithful to Him. These are the true theologians, these are the true Christians.

St Mary also believed that the one born of her will be the Saviour of the world, for the angel said to her that she "...shall call His name Jesus." The word ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’. Again scripture shows us its wonders even in the names that are chosen for certain people. These names are not chosen haphazardly but they carry special meaning. For the one who would prepare the path of the Lord, St John the Baptist, God chose that his name should be John, and it was clearly a name from God because there was a dispute initially amongst St Elizabeth’s relatives since no one had been named John in the family before. The word ‘John’ means ‘God had compassion’. The dispute over John’s name was resolved by his father Zachariah the priest. He was given the board to write it on, having been muted by the angel for not having faith that in their old age he and his wife could conceive a child. He was muted until the moment he indicated that the name should be ‘John’. The word ‘Zachariah’ means ‘God remembered’.

We ask ourselves ‘what is in a name?’ If we put the names in the order in which these people appeared in scripture, we find that Zachariah came before John, and John came before Jesus. We find that God remembered His promise, and when God remembered His promise He had compassion, and when God had compassion He saved us. It is therefore all in the name, and in the choice of names. "Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told to her from the Lord".

St Mary was also told as part of the annunciation that, ‘He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end’. One might ask when did St. Mary see all this and when did it happen? The reality was that St Mary saw nothing but heartache and toil after those words were spoken to her.

St Mary was told that the Son she would give birth to is to be given the throne of His father David. Yet she saw no earthly throne, she did not see a chair, sofa, or even a cushion. It was in fact the mother of James and John who tried to secure seats at the right hand and left hand of the Lord, on assumption that He was entering Jerusalem to sit on an earthly throne (Matt 20:21-23). In the Old Testament, Queen Bathsheba, when she discovered that Adonijah was pronouncing himself as King after his father David, ran to King David and pleaded with him reminding him that he had promised kingship to their son Solomon. King David responded by ordering that Solomon be put on his mule and paraded in the city and anointed King by the Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet (1 Kings 1). King Solomon became one of the wealthiest Kings on earth, his fame and wisdom spreading to the Queen of Sheba. He had the throne of David and the one he sat on was more magnificent than his father David’s. Why St Mary did you not run to God as Queen Bathsheba did and plead with God over your Son’s throne which He had promised? The reason was St Mary by faith knew that the Lord was not destined for any earthly throne.

The only earthly throne St Mary saw the Lord on whilst He was on this earth was the cross. Solomon himself sang of this throne (the cross) in the Song of songs saying, "Of the wood of Lebanon Solomon the King Made himself a palanquin (a mobile throne): He made its pillars of silver, Its support of gold, Its seat of purple, Its interior paved with love, By the daughters of Jerusalem. Go forth, O daughters of Zion, And see King Solomon with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart." Sng 3:9-11. Yet King Solomon was not crowned by his mother, he was anointed and crowned by the priests and prophets, and it was certainly not the day of his wedding when he was crowned.

So what do these verses refer to? Here King Solomon is a symbol of Our Lord Jesus Christ who was crowned with thorns by his mother, the Jewish nation. He bore his thrown to the place of His enthronement, hence his throne was mobile, and the daughters of Jerusalem went forth and wept, and the Lord told them not to weep over Him. On this day his throne (the cross) was paved with love. It was the day of His wedding, when He returned us once more to Him and united us with Him, just as happens in marriage, that we may be one in Him. It was the day of freedom from slavery, the day of salvation and the reopening of Paradise. It was the day of gladness of his heart. This is the throne which St. Mary saw her Son crucified upon. This is the throne at which St Mary stood rejoicing and weeping. She rejoiced with the world at the acceptance of salvation, but her heart burnt when she looked at the crucifixion He endured for the sake of all, as her Son and her God. (Part 6 - Ninth Hour Prayers of the Agbeya)

St Mary was also promised that the Lord would rule over the house of Jacob. I wonder whether St Mary felt there was any truth in those statements after they were told to flee to Egypt from King Herod. There in a foreign land surrounded by only Egyptians, and not one Jewish person in sight, yet we do not find St Mary complaining to God saying, "Where is the house of Jacob you speak of that my Son will rule over, there is not even one Jewish person here for him to rule over?"

What about the promise that His kingdom will be forever. I wonder whether St Mary questioned this promise watching Her Son die on the Cross. "How can there be no end to His kingdom, if His very life is ending now?"

If faith was measured by what is seen and heard, by what is felt at that moment rather than what is to come, then it is no longer faith. "Faith is the substance of the things hoped for, of things unseen" Heb 11:1. Faith is to see what cannot be seen, it is to believe what cannot be believed, it is to live in a life which is yet to be lived. It is to live the heavenly life here on earth before you arrive in that place.

St Mary lived the life of faith in that she knew that the Lord was destined for a heavenly throne. It is the throne on which the Lord sits having ascended to the Father. St Mary will sit one day to the right hand of this throne, when we are all raised from paradise to heaven. In so doing, she fulfills the words of King David, "At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir" Ps 45:9 and the depiction of her enthroned on the right hand of the altar in every Orthodox Church.

St Mary lived the life of faith in that she knew that the Lord would rule over the house of Jacob. The house of Jacob here being a symbol for God’s people, for from the house of Jacob came the twelve tribes of Israel. Anyone who becomes a child of God is ruled over by God and this promise continues to be fulfilled till this day, for "the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" Acts 2:47. This body of Christ continues to be completed every day. St Mary lived the life of faith because she knew that the Lord’s kingdom was not temporal or of this earth, it was heavenly and eternal. Even at the depth of her grief when she saw Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, she knew and had faith.

As she gazed upon Him on the cross, and He gazed upon her I wonder what unspoken words passed between them. "Remember mother when I was twelve, and for three days you sat anxiously looking for me, and you finally found me in the temple, and I told you that I must go about doing my Father’s business. Remember when I left you three years ago to do my Father’s business, having spent thirty years and six months sharing every day with you. Today mother I have completed my Father’s business."

Even when the Lord said, "It is finished! And bowing His head He gave up the spirit" Jn 19:30, St Mary knew, accepted, believed and never doubted in all this God’s promises. Is it not amazing that of all the characters at the tomb on the day of the resurrection, that every other Mary is mentioned, except His mother, St Mary, who is not seen or mentioned? Or is that not faith. St. Mary’s faith was incredible, extending above time and life itself. For all that faith she was rewarded beyond measure with glory and honour, and she will be rewarded with even greater rewards in heaven.

We have a lot to learn from such a strong faith. For our faith by contrast is so weak, easily doubting God’s protection at the hint of trouble, and grumbling at Him at any moment of difficulty, complaining about His lack of love, care and presence. What we forget is that God never breaks His promises and having faith carries such great rewards.

St Elizabeth now we understand why you said those words. You were right for the faith of St Mary was greater than anything we could imagine and she richly deserved that scripture should witness to her faith and say, "Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told to her from the Lord."

 

Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment
of those things which were told to her from the Lord.
- Luke 1:45

St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in London is one of the oldest Coptic churches in the lands of the immigration, and one of the first to be supported and cared for by our beloved patriarch, HH the late Pope Shenouda III.

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