Sermon - Good Friday 2023
Just twenty years after the event we remember today, a riot broke out in Ephesus, the fourth largest city of the Roman Empire. Ephesus was not only an important commercial centre, it also was home to a temple so grand and magnificent that the Ancients considered it a Wonder to behold. Indeed, this temple to the goddess Diana, or Artemis as Greek-speakers called her, symbolized the city much as Paris is today known for the Eiffel Tower or St. Louis for its Arch.
Ostensibly, the cause of the riot was injured civic pride. To defame the goddess and, by extension, her temple was to defame the city. But the organizers of the riot, members of the guild of silversmiths, led by one Demetrius, had another, less lofty, agenda. They feared that the growth of the Christians, and particularly the preaching of a fellow named Paul, was a threat to their profit margin.
As a substantial economic and religious centre, Ephesus enjoyed a highly lucrative tourist trade and chief among the souvenirs available for purchase were images of the goddess and the temple, the best being made by the silversmiths. A step up from the plastic Statues of Liberty with thermometers in their tummies one can find in any shop in NYC, but the same idea.
Acts chapter 19 records the incident and the craftsmen’s fears that the result of more and more people turning to an idol-less religion would result in a collapse of the market and their livelihoods. So, in the best tradition of wealthy demagogues, they disguise this motive in the garb of populism and organize a protest march in the streets which ends up at the 25,000 seat theatre, to the chant of “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” And there, the mob is addressed by the unassuming figure of the town clerk who tells them there’s nothing to fuss about and, after publicly scolding Demetrius and exposing his motives, quietly sends everybody home.
That this is of interest to us today is due to Christ’s words from the Cross to his mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son” and to the disciple John, the words, “Behold your mother” and the Gospel’s note that from that moment John took Mary under his care.
Sacred Tradition has preserved for us that John eventually went to live in Ephesus and provided a house for Mary where she died five or six years before Paul’s arrival and the silversmith’s riot. In the 19thC, archaeologists identified a modest foundation as having been that abode and today it is a place of pilgrimage. I’ve been there and seen it. It might or might not be the very place she lived, but the fact is she did live in a very place, so it’s as good as any for us to remember that fact, and that she even resided in that particular city at all is one of history’s and theology’s greatest ironies.
The lady of myth, whose temple stood so prominently over the city, was said to have been the daughter of the god Jupiter. She was a virgin goddess and yet the one who presided over childbirth; the goddess who watched the crossroads and served as patroness of the moon.
The contrasts abound with the Lady of History for she was the daughter of human parents Joachim and Anna, and, while also a virgin, had not merely presided over childbirth but experienced it and the child she bore was the Christ and Lord of Life.
And, Mary had her own role at a crossroads. The idea of a god on a cross was foolishness to the Greeks, as St. Paul discovered when he tried to preach it, but Mary knew that the Cross of Christ marked the crossroads of the world and for three hours she stood there and watched; no goddess, rather woman and mother.
And, while Diana was associated with the pale reflected light of the moon, it is John who, in decades to come, writing down the Revelation of things past, present and future, describes the appearance of Mary in Heaven as, in his words, a great wonder, a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet.
At this point we may consider that God plans well in advance and that Heaven has its own hilarity for, some four hundred years after the event we remember today, when faith in Christ was sweeping the Roman World, the Emperor Theodosius convened a great Council of the Church at Ephesus. At issue was a major three-way dispute.
One group of Christians had taken the view that Jesus was an inspired man, a wonderful teacher, and his disciples had made up some amazing stories about him healing lepers, changing water into wine, and even a virgin birth in order to reinforce his teachings. But those were just stories. He was human. On the other hand, another group said that Jesus wasn't a real human at all. He was a divine spirit who had made himself look like a human and, yes, he did heal lepers and raise the dead and walk on water, but he wasn't born - of a virgin or anyone else human. He was a spirit.
The third group, however, said that Jesus was both - true God and true Man - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, really born of the real Virgin Mary.
By this time, the temple, the preservation of whose reputation had so exercised Demetrius, was in ruins, its idols long ago carted off and melted down, its stone work repurposed into other buildings. The assembled bishops must have thought about the history of the place for it was at this Council, which determined as Christian orthodoxy that Jesus was indeed both true God and true Man, the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, that the Virgin Mary was formally given the Greek title “Theotokos” which translates in English as "God-Bearer" - one who gives birth to God – to describe her role.
In the Latinate West it’s translated “Mater Dei” or "Mother of God" and the phrase was first used in the 2nd Century, so, it goes right back to the Apostles’ time. Which means that when we call Mary the Theotokos, the Mother of God, we are making a powerful statement about Jesus, because a human cannot be God, and a spirit can have no mother. So, with literally one word about his Mother, the Council put two false ideas about Jesus to rest.
Thus, St. Louis de Montfort could write that he who does not have Mary for his Mother, does not have God for his Father, for every attempt to push Mary to the side-lines brings us back to a Jesus who is either just a nice guy or just a figure of myth. There is no separating the Incarnate from the Incarnation. No wonder, even today, that reality makes people who would rather keep God high up and far away from their lives, uncomfortable.
When you smash an idol, all you get is a broken idol. When you smash Christ, you get a broken world. The smashing need not be violent and sudden. It can be a subtle habit done with a velvet hammer of indifference, relativism, and a corrosive spiritual failing whose morbid slogan in the face of evil is “Well, it can’t happen here.”
For example, in the year 650, all of what we today call Iraq was covered with churches and had been Christian for centuries. But by 700, only fifty years later, it was almost all Moslem. What happened? Well, the main type of Christianity in that region was a denomination we call Nestorian which had rejected the Council of Ephesus. It taught that Jesus was miraculously virgin-born, but that he was not God. As it happens, the Moslems also taught that Jesus was miraculously virgin-born, but was not God. So, what was the difference? Therefore, when confronted by the challenge of Islam, most Nestorians converted without a fight.
Jesus promised that the gates of Hell could not prevail against his Church, but he made no such promise to particular churches. And it is not enough to say we are a Christian people because we call ourselves one or that we need not fear oppression because no one is taking away our churches. We can simply let them fall away and they will go.
The story is told of a poor woman who was walking along an English country road at the beginning of the 20th Century. As she made her way, she saw, approaching her, one of those large and sputtering modern machines called an automobile. It pulled up and stopped and the man in the back seat apologized that, as he was going the other way, he couldn’t offer her a ride to town. But he asked, would she accept, as a gift, a small picture of his mother? As the bewildered woman stared at him, the man proceeded to hand her a gold coin bearing the profile of Queen Victoria. The man, you see, was Victoria’s son, King Edward VII.
Two thousand years ago, the King of Kings spoke from the Cross and asked the world to accept a picture of his Mother. There was nothing incidental about it. There are no afterthoughts in a crucifixion. Christ’s command to look at her is a summons to Creation and his work was not done until he had spoken it.
To the chant of the mob, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”, Christ leaves us the words of the Archangel, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
“Behold your mother.”