Mother of God

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Today (25 March) we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and on this day we celebrate the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. As it is written in Luke 1:30-33:

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

While the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches celebrate Christmas as the high point of the church calendar, the real miracle of Christmas takes place at the conception, nine months before. It is at this moment that God incarnates into human form. Mary is thus referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ or the Theotokos (or God bearer) because she carries and gives birth to God. It is not that she creates God! But rather that she bears God in her womb.

What is conceived in Mary is, from conception, a hybrid of human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus. This is a mystery, hard to fathom – the nature of Jesus Christ. But whatever it is, and however we understand Christ’s divine and human natures, it starts at his conception, not at his birth.

Let me suggest three reasons why this rather mysterious and mystical notion is important:

  1. The conception demonstrates the enormity of God’s emptying out of God’s self on behalf of humankind (which we read about in Philippians 2) – we refer to this emptying out as ‘kenosis’. Typically, we think of God’s kenosis in the birth of Christ, but really it is in his conception. God – the omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent and all powerful God – folds down into a single human cell, then an embryo and then a foetus. The willingness of God to become so small is quite overwhelming – God pouring out God’s self for humanity.
  2. The conception is a profound example of God’s choice to work in partnership with humans. We see this choice from the beginning of creation, when God entrusts creation to Adam and Eve. But here it is particularly profound. While others could assist in taking care of a newborn, only the mother can take care of an unborn. God the son was, during gestation, utterly and solely dependent on the young woman Mary. God was truly at the hands of this one person. God trusted her and entrusted God’s self to her.
  3. And, drawing on Eastern Orthodox theology, in the conception, God inserts God’s DNA (so to speak, metaphorically) into human DNA. In so doing, God begins to change and save human nature itself. For Orthodox Christians, the conception is the foundation of salvation, because the very fabric of human nature is infused with the presence of the divine, and God begins (or continues and deepens) the work saving not just individual humans, but the nature of humanity.

Let us not let this momentous day slip by unnoticed. Let us give thanks to God for his incarnation at the moment of conception. And let us give thanks to Mary for being willing to bear God in her womb.

Featured image of Theotokos from https://myocn.net/celebrating-theotokos-throughout-year/

Journey of faith

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The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d