By Steven Peay

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s greeting was like that of the angel visitor at the Annunciation. He had said, “Hail, full of grace!” Grace is how it all started, and grace is how this woman became blessed among all women.

The grace she experienced didn’t fill her like a bottle. Grace, God’s unmerited favor, is not a commodity. Rather, grace was her being taken up into the plan of God. As the late Joseph Donders put it so well, “That grace was her mission. That grace was what she was going to mean to all of us.” Mary is the witness to grace. That is what she means to us.

Grace has a funny quality, however. Since it’s not something you can manipulate or see, it tends to show up in the most unlikely places. When the angel came to Mary, and Mary in her turn ran off to Elizabeth, unlikely situations were arising. Just like when the prophet Micah spoke to Israel following the exile.

He spoke to the people of unlikely things. An obscure village, in an obscure region would provide a ruler of great power. He spoke those words to remind his hearers that power and security were not locked up in Jerusalem. They had to remember that their ultimate security rested in God — not in their king, not in their army, not in their economy. It’s a lesson we still need to learn, isn’t it?

Years later, Micah’s prophecy came true, again, as that obscure village became the birthplace of God in human flesh. Again, God takes the most unlikely things to turn us around, to remind us that we are to find our life, our hope, our peace and security in God. Micah and Mary are both witnesses to grace, witnesses to the inbreaking of God into human life and experience.

They are both witnesses, too, that this inbreaking of God is a two-edged sword. The presence of grace, God’s very self, can bring down the proud who think themselves secure in their power; while it can also locate power in surprising places by raising up the weak. There’s a story told about the “Sun King,” Louis XIV of France, sitting in the grand cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris as Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, was being sung at Evening Prayer. As the choir chanted the words, “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,” the king looked to his prime minister and said, “Those are words best kept in Latin.” Louis got the point.

To be a witness to grace, then, is a risky business. Yet Mary extended herself fully to the task. When the angel told her what God proposed to do through her, she didn’t demur. Rather, she said, “Behold the Lord’s servant. Be it done to me according to God’s word.”

Her response, her yes for humanity’s salvation, is what led Augustine to say of her, “Mary conceived the Lord in her heart long before she conceived him in her womb.” Mary’s risk allows God to enter into human experience in a way never before thought of. The Creator of the universe, the God who is being itself, whose very name is I Am Who Am, takes our frail flesh and rests in a woman’s womb.

Is it any wonder that the great theologians of the Greek Church call her platytera — she who holds heaven and earth in herself — and that the Council of Ephesus in 431 gave her the title theotokos, God-bearer? She became the “space of the spaceless God.” She was indeed a firsthand witness to grace.

Yet, this witness to grace took this risk not to call attention to herself, but to become a vehicle for humanity’s being brought back into communion with God. God’s infinite love and mercy condescended to become incarnate within the human race. Irenaeus, one of my favorites among the Fathers of the Church, who wrote in the second century, called this act recapitulation, for in it God regathers scattered humanity.

What God does is to come among us to restore to us our truest, grace-filled nature. Irenaeus said, so beautifully, so powerfully, “God became man in order that we might become God.” He added:

The Son of God became the Son of Man in order that the sons of men, the sons of Adam, might be made sons of God. The Word, who was begotten of the Father in Heaven in an ineffable, inexplicable, incomprehensible and eternal manner, came to this earth to be born in time of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in order that they who were born of earth might be born again of God in Heaven. … He has bestowed upon us the first fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that we may all become sons of God in imitation of the Son of God. Thus He, the true and natural Son of God, bears us all in Himself, so that we may all bear in ourselves the only God.

This is, exactly, what the writer to the Hebrews is telling us in those verses from the tenth chapter. Through Mary, God took a human body so that we might be lifted up into the fullness, the wonder of life in God.

As Mary was witness to grace, as she was Theotokos — God-bearer — so are we. We sing in the carol, “cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today,” and what we’re singing, what we’re asking for, is precisely what happened to Mary. Mary’s witness is to become ours as we say yes to God and bear his grace, his presence, into the world.

To take on this task is a risky business. It involves opening ourselves and the ordinariness of our lives to the transforming presence of God’s very self. To be a witness to grace means that we can no longer be the same, or that we can look at the world or its people in exactly the same way we did before. Because we now see God in the world, because we now see people for what they really are — the children of God — we simply can’t dismiss it or them as we did before.

Now we are called to seek God, to love God through this world and through these people, and that’s a risky business. That risky business is the only way we’ll ever hear that greeting, “Hail, full of grace!” as more than just a line lisped in a children’s Christmas pageant.

The truth is that greeting — “Hail, full of grace!” and “Blessed are you” — isn’t only for Mary. It’s for each one of us, too. But it is only ours when, like Mary, we take on our role as witnesses to grace, as witnesses to the wonder of Emmanuel, God with us, and bring that wonder to a waiting, needy world.

“Blessed are you,” and you, and you, and you, and all of us as we witness, with Mary, to grace. May the witness of grace be real in our hearts and in our lives as God’s loving presence breaks into our world.

The Very Rev. Dr. Steven Peay was, at the time of his death in August 2020, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Milwaukee.