The Blessed Virgin Mary

There are three feasts in the Church calendar which focus upon St. Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. These feasts are The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin (Dec. 8), The Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord Jesus Christ (March 25), and The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (May 31). Today, I would like for us to focus upon St. Mary and the important role that she played in Salvation history as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s first Advent. In doing this, we will take all three of the Marian feasts in consideration.

Introduction to the Marian Feasts

“The honor paid to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, goes back the earliest days of the Church. Two Gospels tell of the manner of Christ’s birth, and the familiar Christmas story testifies to the Church’s conviction that He was born of a virgin. Mary was the person closest to Jesus in His most impressionable years, and the words of the Magnificat, as well as her humble acceptance of the divine will, bear more than an accidental resemblance to the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.

Later devotion has claimed many things for Mary that cannot be proved from Holy Scripture. What we can believe is that one who stood in so intimate relationship with the incarnate Son of God on earth must, of all the human race, have the place of highest honor in the eternal life of God.” (Source: The Proper for the Lesser Feasts and Fast 1997, p. 328)

The Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

“In accordance with the eternal purpose of God, who willed to prepare a most pure habitation for Himself in order to take flesh and dwell among men, Joachim and Anna were prevented from having children for many years. Their barren old age was symbolic of human nature itself, bowed down and dried up under the weight of sin and death, yet they never ceased begging God to take away their reproach. Now when the time of preparation determined by the Lord had been fulfilled, God allowed Joachim and Anna to conceive a daughter. Through the conception of Saint Anna, the barrenness of human nature itself, separated from God by death, has on this day been brought to an end; and by the wondrous birth-giving of her who had remained childless until the age when women can no longer bear fruit, God announced and testified to the more astonishing miracle of the Conception without seed, and of the immaculate coming to birth of Christ within the heart and the womb of the Most Holy Virgin and Mother of God. Even though the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place through a miraculous action of God, she was conceived by the union of man and woman in accordance with the laws of our human nature, which has fallen through Adam’s transgression and become subject to sin and corruption (cf. Gen. 3:16). As the chosen Vessel and precious Shrine prepared by God since the beginning of time, she is indeed the most pure and the most perfect of mankind, but even so, she has not been set apart from our common inheritance nor from the consequences of the sin of our first parents. Just as it was fitting that Christ, in order to deliver us from death by his own voluntary death (Heb. 2:14), should by his incarnation be made like to men in all things except sin; so it was meet that His Mother, in whose womb the Word of God would unite with human nature, should be subject to death and corruption like every child of Adam, lest we not be fully included in Salvation and Redemption. The Mother of God has been chosen and preferred among all women, not arbitrarily, but because God foresaw that she would preserve her purity and keep it perfect: conceived and born like all of us, she has been worthy to become the Mother of the Son of God and the mother of us all. So, in her tenderness and compassion, she is able to intercede for us with her Son, that He may have mercy upon us” (excerpt taken from the Synaxarion).

John the Baptist

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All three annual cycles for the Sunday readings reserve the Third Sunday of Advent for a narration about John the Baptist. Our principal sources of information about John the Baptist are (1) references to his birth in the first chapter of Luke, (2) references to his preaching and his martyrdom in the Gospels, with a few references in Acts, and (3) references in Josephus to his preaching and martyrdom, references which are consistent with the New Testament ones, but sufficiently different in the details to make direct borrowing unlikely.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus (who wrote after 70 AD), John the Baptist was a Jewish preacher in the time of Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36). He called the people to repentance and to a renewal of their covenant relation with God. He was imprisoned and eventually put to death by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born) for denouncing Herod’s marriage to Herodias, the wife of his still-living brother Philip. In order to marry Herodias, Herod divorced his first wife, the daughter of King Aretas of Damascus, who subsequently made war on Herod, a war which, Josephus tells us, was regarded by devout Jews as a punishment for Herod’s murder of the prophet John.

In the Book of Acts, we find sermons about Jesus which mention His Baptism by John as the beginning of His public ministry (see Acts 10:37; 11:16; 13:24). We also find accounts (see Acts 18:24; 19:3) of devout men in Greece who had received the baptism of John, and who gladly received the full message of the Gospel of Christ when it was told them.

Luke begins his Gospel by describing an aged, devout, childless couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. As Zechariah is serving in the Temple, he sees the angel Gabriel, who tells him that he and his wife will have a son who will be a great prophet, and will go before the Lord “like Elijah.” (The Jewish tradition had been that Elijah would herald the coming of the Messiah = Christ = Anointed = Chosen of God.) Zechariah went home, and his wife conceived. About six months later, Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, a kinswoman of Elizabeth, and told her that she was about to bear a son who would be called Son of the Most High, a king whose kingdom would never end. Thus Elizabeth gave birth to John, and Mary gave birth six months later to Jesus.

After describing the birth of John, Luke says that he grew, and “was in the wilderness until the day of his showing to Israel.” The people of the Qumran settlement, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, sometime use the term “living in the wilderness” to refer to residing in their community at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Accordingly, it has been suggested that John spent some of his early years being educated at Qumran.

All of the gospels tell us that John preached and baptized beside the Jordan river, in the wilderness of Judea. He called on his hearers to repent of their sins, be baptized, amend their lives, and prepare for the coming of the Kingship of God. He spoke of one greater follow Jesus. Some of John’s followers resented this, but he told them: “This is as it should be. My mission is to proclaim the Christ. The groomsman, the bridegroom’s friend, who makes the wedding arrangements for the bridegroom, is not jealous of the bridegroom. No more am I of Jesus. He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3:22-30).

John continued to preach, reproving sin and calling on everyone to repent. King Herod Antipas had divorced his wife and taken Herodias, the wife of his (still living) brother Philip. John rebuked him for this, and Herod, under pressure from Herodias, had John arrested, and eventually beheaded. (source: “Birth of John the Baptist” by James Kiefer from the website Saints and Commemorations of the Episcopal Church).

 

The Advent Wreath and Family Evening Prayer

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“In family practice, the Advent wreath is most appropriately lit at dinner time after the blessing of the food. A traditional prayer service using the Advent wreath proceeds as follows: On the First Sunday of Advent, the father of the family blesses the wreath, praying: O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath, and grant that we who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” He then continues for each of the days of the first week of Advent, O Lord, stir up Thy might, we beg thee, and come, that by Thy protection we may deserve to be rescued from the threatening dangers of our sins and saved by Thy deliverance. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The youngest child then lights one purple candle.

During the second week of Advent, the father prays: O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for Thy only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve Thee with pure minds. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The oldest child then lights the purple candle from the first week plus one more purple candle.

During the third week of Advent, the father prays: O Lord, we beg Thee, incline Thy ear to our prayers and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of Thy visitation. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The mother then lights the two previously lit purple candles plus the rose candle.

Finally, the father prays during the fourth week of Advent, O Lord, stir up Thy power, we pray Thee, and come; and with great might help us, that with the help of Thy grace, Thy merciful forgiveness may hasten what our sins impede. Who livest and reignest forever. Amen.” The father then lights all of the candles of the wreath.

Since Advent is a time to stir-up our faith in the Lord, the wreath and its prayers provide us a way to augment this special preparation for Christmas. Moreover, this good tradition helps us to remain vigilant in our homes and not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas” (by Fr. William Saunders).

 

St. Nicholas

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The real St. Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ word to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals – murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. He died December 6, A.D. 343, in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, the anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day.

Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

Why celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas?

  • To tell the story of a Christian, whose model life inspires compassion and charity
  • To reveal the true identity of Santa Claus and Father Christmas
  • To focus on giving more than on receiving
  • To emphasize small treats and family fun
  • To provide a bit of special festivity early in the waiting weeks of Advent
  • To explain the spiritual dimension of gift giving
  • To help keep Jesus the center of Christmas
  • Saint Nicholas loved children and cared for the needy. He brings the love of Christ and the healing of Jesus. We honor this saint by following his example of selflessness.