Today (15 August) the Church honours the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The Gospel passage set for Morning Prayer is Luke 11:27-28,
While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
Jesus’ response mirrors that of the woman, and goes deeper: blessed (happy) are those who hear and comprehend the word spoken by God so that faith is birthed within them (the idea here is conception, not full-term birth) and who guard, protect or watch-over it (the idea here is pregnancy, of the foetus developing in the womb, and the mother cherishing this miracle of new life within and with her). In other words, Mary, who said yes to God and in whose womb the Word of God took on flesh, and who treasured these things in her heart (the word rightly translated womb in Luke 11:27 can refer to any internal organ and the inner being) is the model for all.
But there is more to this brief exchange on the birthing and nurture of God’s word in our lives. In the Greek, verse 27 begins, ‘It came into being, or, to birth, by Jesus saying this, that a woman in the crowd lifted up her voice and said to him...’ By Jesus saying what, exactly? In Luke 11:14-23, Jesus casts out a demon who has prevented its ‘host’ from speaking, and the crowd is divided in its opinion: some argue that it is by the authority of the ruler of the demons that Jesus casts demons out. Jesus responds, how can a kingdom divided against itself stand? Rather, I do this on the authority of God, and as a sign of God’s kingdom among you. Jesus continues (Luke 11:24-26, the saying that births a response in the woman), explaining that when an unclean spirit is cast out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions in search of a place to rest and be refreshed, and, finding none, determines to return to the person whom it had made its home (‘my house from which I came’) and, finding ‘the house’ in order, brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and together they take possession of the person’s life, such that their state is now worse than before.
Jesus is speaking about our lives as a resting place, either for the Holy Spirit (of whom Jesus speaks in Luke 11:9-13) or for unclean spirits. Even if spirits who afflict a person’s life are driven out, unless the life-giving Holy Spirit is received, the relief from affliction may be short-lived. We don’t like to admit that we aren’t fully in charge of our own lives, but if we are honest, we know it to be true (even as I was writing this, I nipped out to buy milk; the woman in the queue ahead of me confessed to the cashier that she had fallen off the wagon over the weekend, and the cashier replied, oh well, it can’t be helped). And the woman in the crowd hears and comprehends that Jesus is the fruit of another woman who had welcomed the Holy Spirit and made first her very body and then her home, both building and family, a resting place for the liberating word of God, breath given voice.
May we be as the unnamed woman in the crowd, who was, in turn, a woman in the pattern of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
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