After Gabriel’s announcement that she will bear God’s child, after Mary rushes to the house of her cousin Elizabeth to process the shock of this news, Mary waits in Nazareth—week after week, month after month, she feels the incarnation happening within her, her body learning what it means to become God’s home in the world, for nine months.
In the medieval ages, Christians developed a style of devotional art to highlight this way of thinking about this part of the Christmas story—to show Mary, full of divine glory. They called these pieces of art Vierge ouvrante because these images of Mary would open up to reveal God inside of her—not just Jesus, but all of God, God in God’s fullness, Mary’s body as containing and revealing all three persons of the trinity, the triune nature of God hidden within Mary’s nature.
These images capture Mary’s place in popular devotion, especially during the heights of male power—both in the church and society, all people governed by patriarchial systems in their public and private lives.
Yet, here’s Mary—in our bible passage for today and in church art. The Christmas story narrows our vision, the eyes of our faith, onto Mary—we turn to consider her place in the story of God, of incarnation, of Immanuel. God is with us because God was first with Mary.
Theotokos was the title they gave her in the early church—a Greek word that means, “God-bearer,” Mary as the one who bears God’s life for the world.
Theologians and bishops wrote against these images of Mary with the trinity—even a pope condemned them. Which is part of the reason why I like them so much, I imagine. There was something about these images that threatened the theology of the men in charge of things. In 1402 Jean Gerson, a powerful theologian in Paris spoke against these statues. He saw them in a Carmelite monastery, the wooden carvings as part of the devotion of the sisters who lived there. Gerson preached against these pious nuns who, he said, dishonored God by putting “the Trinity within a womb, as if the entire Trinity took flesh in the Virgin Mary.” In 1563 the Council of Trent decided that these images of Mary were heretical. In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV banned them.
Part of the power of these pieces of devotional art, these pious images, is that they capture the shock of Christmas—that moment of revelation, the surprise of the story: that God becomes a child, vulnerable to the violences of this world, to the violences that threaten Mary day to day, as a young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, bearing the weight of oppression at the hands of the Roman occupation of her people. Whatever threatens Mary, threatens the life of Jesus, God in Mary’s flesh.
The shock of the story has to do with God’s dependence on Mary—that Mary’s life provides for God’s life, all while she bears the burden of the law, of her people’s law, the weight of the Scriptures pressing down on her, biblical laws that hold her in low esteem, despite the fact that she holds God’s life in her hands, in her body. She knows what her people have been taught to think about her, what the holy texts say about her, how they write her identity.
There’s a passage in one of Paul’s letters, in Galatians, where he understands the significance of the birth of Jesus—“born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). She lives under the weight of generations of stories and legislation, the weight of Scriptures that determine the worth of her life, laws that determine her value, her place in society.
From the beginning, we read about male supremacy—as God says to Eve in Genesis, in the opening scenes of the Bible: “To the woman God said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’” (Genesis 3:16). He shall rule over you.
In Exodus, when God gives Moses the ten commandments, the laws of Israel, to legislation to shape and guide God’s people, we read about women as the possession of men—in commandments addresses to the men of Israel about their women: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Women are possessions, like donkeys and oxen.
The law in Deuteronomy explains what to do when an Israelite man desires a woman taken captive during warfare—legislation as counsel for taking possession of foreign women: “Suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house… If you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money” (Deuteronomy 21:11,14). Her status depends on the satisfaction of male desire.
Women were at the mercy of men, as recorded in the history of the people—women as sacrifices to satisfy the lustful power of masculinity. Lot offers his daughters: “Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men” (Genesis 19:8). An old man in Gibeah sacrifices the women under his care to debaucherous men: “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them” (Judges 19:23-24).
These stories, these laws, these texts coalesce into pithy sayings, proverbs passed from generation to generation, folk wisdom instructing men to consider women as objects. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense” (Proverbs 11:22). “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15).
Not only does Mary have to navigate her lowly status as a woman, she panics at the reality of her unwed pregnancy. As a woman, her sexuality is under the constant gaze of male vigilantes, mobs of righteous men entrusted by the law to enforce purity codes. “If the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring her out to her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
The law is obsessed with her body, with the purity of her nature, requiring vigilance of any contamination she might pose to her community. “When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15:19). She, according to nature, is impure. Her biology renders her unclean, dirty, a social contaminant—her body a pollutant to the community. “How can one born of a woman be clean?” (Job 25:4). How can child be the salvation of humankind if he is born from a woman?
The weight of the law presses into her body, reaching into her womb. If she is unclean, then won’t her child be defiled, too? As a woman under the law, Mary knows the commandments spoken to Moses, the words etched into stone for the men of Israel—addressed to them, not her, but legislation nonetheless about her, centering on her, categorizing her life, determining her value, her place in a society out of her control.
She has every reason to panic, to worry, to let the world fill her with dread, yet, here, today, in our passage from Luke’s Gospel, she is singing, we hear her song: “Truly, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). She has the boldness to tell us to revere her, to call her blessed. She doesn’t accept her place in society according to the world, according to the law, according to her people—instead, she rejoices in what God will soon reveal: that salvation has arrived, the advent of liberation, through her life, the work of God made flesh in Mary’s body. What God is doing through her will mean a new world, a world where the powerful will be brought down from their thrones, and the lowly will be lifted up, a world where the lives of the hungry will be filled with good things, and the rich will be sent away empty (1:52-53).
Last week I preached about Jesus as the fire of God, here to purify the world from our systems of sin, our structures and attitudes of greed and exploitation. Now, this week, after we hear these words from the pregnant Mary, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus learned his prophetic ministry from his mother. She was the one who sang words of liberation: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Jesus must have learned his prophetic ministry when he was a child, an infant in the manger, as Mary sang her freedom song, her song of God’s redemption.
I like to imagine the baby Jesus, fussing at his bed time, and Mary, holding him in her arms, whispering this song to him, comforting him with dreams of revolution—the magnificat as her lullaby.
I love everything about Mary’s song—the prayer, the dream, the vision for a world turned upside down, right-side up, all things restored to God’s justice, God’s peace, the goodness of creation renewed for all of us, where there will be no more rich or poor because no one will have too much, which means everyone will have enough.
The challenge, for me, as I listen to this song, as I listen for her voice echo this year at every protest, in every chant, through every person who calls for the liberation of our world from those who have amassed power and wealth off the backs of our people, our neighbors—the challenge for me happens as I follow Mary’s story, her life, to keep on reading the Gospels and watch as she lingers in the background, always there as Jesus grows up, always there following his ministry—she’s there at the end, when he offers his life as a sacrifice in God’s revolution, when he gives his life for the prophetic vision Mary sang about. And, after all of that, her life goes on, even after his resurrection. Mary is there all along the way—there at the cross, offering her solidarity.
She’s always there, giving her life to God’s vision for a new world. Her labor doesn’t end on Christmas day. All of her life is labor.
Mary is the first disciple, the first to say yes to God’s plan in Jesus Christ. We are like Mary, all of us with her, praying and dreaming and laboring for a new world—that world we glimpse in our Scriptures, a community of peace, where Jesus welcomes all of us into God’s love for the world. As Origen preached in the third century, all of us are like Mary—because the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary now overshadows us, as we give birth to Christ with our lives.[i] Or Meister Eckhart, that mystic of the 13th and 14th centuries, who said it this way:
We are all meant to be mothers of God… What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Yes, Christmas is a celebration of God’s life for the world. And it’s also a calling, for all of us, to be like Mary, to bear God’s life for the world, to live out that faith of Mary, her trust in a vision for a world remade with God’s love, where all we know is love, where God’s life reaches through all of what we do, all of what we have, as we labor, as we strive, as we pray for God’s reign of peace.
And the good news is that, if this is true—if we are like Mary, then you have been chosen by God, you are called blessed, for you bear God’s life in you, Christ’s life in yours.
[i] Origen: “and when you have been made worthy of the shadow, His body from which the shadow is born, will in a manner of speaking come to you.” Quoted in Mary Rubin, Mother of God, 15.