In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Second Sunday following Assumption), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Bearers of God
Whether it be for our planet, or for our personal homes, we go to great lengths to care for the space in which we live. We establish environmental laws, we recycle, we take our shoes off at the door. We clean, decorate, and we take extra care when we entertain guests. What about the space in which we worship – the temple, or տաճար? Whether in the entrance area, or where we stand and pray, or at the holy altar, there is etiquette and protocol. It’s understood that we shouldn’t run inside the church building, nor should we sit down while the Gospel is being chanted. There’s attention to how liturgical vessels are cleaned, carried, and where they are placed. Listen to the prayerful instruction from the Bishop to the candidate being ordained as a Subdeacon:
And the bowl in which you wash the corporal cloth [on which the chalice rests]—let nothing else touch it. And dispose of the water that you use to wash it into the baptismal font. And the basin in which you wash the altar linens—use the same basin for washing all of the church vessels. I say all of this to show you how careful you must be in fulfilling your duties so that you may please God, our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom are due glory, lordship and honor. (trans. Bishop Daniel Findikyan)
In other words, all of this space is treated with such care, as if it has been touched by glory. And that’s because it has been, by God’s glory! Our places of worship are sacred spaces where the presence of God resides, and it is treated as such with holy reverence.
According to our Church calendar, we are still celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and on this feast, we celebrate Mary as the “Mother of God,” or in Armenian, “Աստուածածին” which means “Birth-Giver of God.” When Mary said yes to the invitation from God to give birth to Jesus Christ, her womb became a sacred space, a living Temple, a Տաճար in which God could dwell. As St. Gregory of Narek wrote in his ode the Mother of God, she was “adorned by the Son who dwelt in you as his tabernacle.” (80A) So closely associated is the Mother of God with a temple or tabernacle that the naming of churches after the Virgin Mary was a common practice in the Early Church, including the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin. Why? Because like Mary, the Church begets children of God through the baptismal font. In this way, both the Church and Mary are truly dwellings or shrines of God.
In Sunday’s epistle reading from the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us that we, the Church, the people who make up the Body of Christ, are the Temple of the living God. He writes,
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
We don’t just allow any object to be displayed in our churches, right? The buildings are holy, consecrated to God, and so only certain things belong. Well, it’s the same with us! Created in the image of God, baptized in the womb of the Church, “We are the temple of the the living God.” A Տաճար in whom God, the Holy Spirit lives and dwells, as a community and as individuals. So we can’t just allow anything to dwell in our lives. Like a good steward of the earth, like a good resident or homeowner, or like good servants of the Church, do we take the time and effort to closely examine our own space, our own temples, and the temple of our community in order to remove idols, or anything that doesn’t belong?
Idols are not just physical objects. Idolatry can be anything that distracts us from placing God first and at the very center of our life. In fact, that’s the definition of sin. And St. Paul is reminding us that idols are not welcome! Due to sinful habits and confused priorities, idols will make themselves at home to the point of not being noticed anymore, similar to becoming accustomed to a piece of furniture or decor in our home that just becomes part of the landscape, no longer noticeable as we walk past it every day. The sins which we commit go unnoticed, they no longer cause the tension that they should. Our communion with God becoming less and less of a concern.
So how do we keep our sacred space clean? By living as though God dwells within you, within us. Which means what? First of all, it means getting baptized, the beginning of our faith journey when we ask the Holy Spirit to seal us and live within us, when we become a temple for God to dwell. Living as though God dwells within us means obeying God’s law of love, which is not just being nice to one another. That’s not enough. Rather, love God with all of our heart. With all of our mind. With all of our soul. And with all of our strength. Do our lives reflect that to the world? Also, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, just as we love ourselves. Does everything we do, how we define success, what we buy, how we treat our bodies, how we steward our resources emerge from a place in which God dwells? Or do we just give God one room, one corner of our heart?
It means doing real Christian charitable work as a community, facing the pain and suffering of others with God’s mercy and healing. It means forgiving others, even when they don’t ask for it. And loving our enemies? Yes. It means sacrificial giving. Giving to the point where it hurts. It means living in a constant state of confession and repentance, like breathing, always aware of what is distracting us from God, and what causes us to turn our back to him. How often do examine our conscience and ask God to bring to mind any sin we have entertained or idols we have propped up in our heart? And it means to meaningfully participate in Badarak by coming forward to share the Body and Blood of Christ, so that God dwells within us and changes us to be like him, as much as we allow him to do so. That’s the meaning of Badarak. So that we are changed and transformed into the Body of Christ.
Just as the Virgin Mary said yes to be a Temple for God to inhabit, all of these things are how we, as the Body of Christ, can and should respond to God’s promise with a continuous and resounding “Yes!” The same promise from Sunday’s epistle reading, the same promise given to the people of God throughout the Old Testament: that we will be a Temple in which he can dwell, that we will be his sons and daughters, that he will live and walk among us, and we will be his people, and he will be our God and Father. Today, and ongoing, as we remember the Virgin Mary as Սուրբ Աստուածածին, the Holy Birth-Giver of God, who said yes to God and became a sacred Temple within which he could dwell, let’s consider our own temple. How are we responding to God’s invitation to dwell within it? What does our temple look like or reflect to the world? Can people tell that God lives there? What idols have we set up or allowed into our temple that don’t belong? And how can we become a sacred space by saying yes to God, to bear his glory in our lives and to the world that desperately and urgently needs to experience his love and healing?
Collaboration in God’s Divine Plan
Mary knew the Psalms and the writings of the Prophets which spoke of hope, mercy, revolution, and ultimately promised a Messiah who would bring deliverance and redemption to his people. Essentially, this is what Mary is singing about in the song popularly known as the “Magnificat” or in Armenian “Մեծացուսցէ” which means “magnify,” taken from the first line of the song.
Among many other motifs, the Virgin Mary recalls how the prophets foretold and God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. She sings,
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.
From her song, we are reminded that Mary is not just a Virgin who gave birth to the Son of God; she is also blessed by all generations, an echo of the word to Abraham (Abram), “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:3) which is fulfilled in the offspring of Mary. Through Mary, God has fulfilled his promise to Israel, to deliver his people from oppression and bring both Jew and Gentile together, uniting them in his Son, Jesus Christ, the faithful Israelite who assumed flesh from the race of Abraham, the Messiah who would bless and unite all nations.
I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:17-18)
By remembering Joachim and Anna (this year, Tuesday, August 27) and the joy that Mary expressed when she learned she would be carrying the Son of God in her womb, the Armenian Church reminds us not only of God’s plan to bring forth the Messiah, but that we are a part of it. What we should not fail to notice is that God, in his divine plan partnered with Mary, another human being. By reading the Մեծացուսցէ, we are reminded of the heredity of our salvation – her parents, and the generations of all those who went before her – the tree of human history that brought forth God’s divine plan of salvation to heal the world, and all those who follow her, those born of the baptismal font in the name of the Holy Trinity. Just as God included Mary, God includes us, so that through us we bring healing to the world. Like Mary, the Bearer of God, we also are bearers of God.
As we find numerous times throughout the Scriptures, God relies on the collaboration of human beings to bring about his divine will. The same collaboration even takes place when we celebrate Badarak! During Badarak, the bread and wine are offered as gifts to God on behalf of the people. Like the gifts of the bread and wine, we too offer ourselves as gifts to God, as disciples for doing his will and work in the world. In essence, as a community we bring to God our most basic needs, offering our whole life, and ask him to take us, change us, and give himself back to us as his own Body and Blood for forgiveness, healing, and salvation. So Badarak is not only about God’s plan to share himself with us, but also about changing us into the people God wants us to be, the Body of Christ, nourished to carry out the mission of the Church. Mary as Աստուածածին, as Birth-Giver of God, has a direct, meaningful connection as to why we belong to the Church and participate in Badarak.
The seed of Abraham does not refer only to the physical lineage of Abraham, but as the father of all nations, it refers to the people of God, the Church, a community in which our lives are joined by our one baptism in Christ, all of us ministers, baptized for his work. God’s partnering with humanity is not because he needs us for his divine plan to work, rather he chooses to include us. Why? Simply because he loves us! This means that each of us as individuals and collectively as the Church are a part of his plan of salvation, a direct link in the chain chosen by God for his purposes. The mission of the Church isn’t about satisfying our personal agendas or even the agenda of a single parish community, but all together we make up the Body of Christ.
So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. (Galatians 3:7-9)
As a parish, as individuals on a daily basis, do we celebrate our salvation lineage? Do our souls magnify the Lord? Are we just as joyful as the Mother of God in her song of praise knowing that God also chose us to be a part of his divine plan? As fellow workers with God (see I Corinthians 3:9), do we sing and participate in Badarak as if we are collaborating and truly cooperating with God? Do we only seek to get from God, but lazily contribute to his mission, refraining from or minimally playing our part in the common work of ministry? Ask the Mother of God to intercede for us to live as people of faith, to embody the Gospel as sons and daughters of Abraham, because through Jesus Christ our Savior, we are blessed!