The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Micah 5:2-5a Psalm 113
Romans 8:28-30 Matthew 1:18-25
Several years ago, quite unexpectedly, a friend and I were invited to join the annual French national healing pilgrimage to Lourdes, to be a part of a contingent of 1,000 malades and 3,000 caregivers to spend a week at the famous holy place of healing. Both of us had serious health issues and as a result of eye surgery I had lost the sight of my right eye. While I would never have considered a pilgrimage to Lourdes had we not been invited, our week there turned out to be one of the most important spiritual moments in my life. Traditionally, pilgrims come to Lourdes with three prayer requests associated with healing. Certainly two of mine were, but my third petition was to truly know Mary and know that she knew me as an individual and loved me. I had grown up in a faith tradition that barely mentioned her and now am part of a community in which she is a vital force. Who is she? Meek and mild as the Church has traditionally presented her? I wanted to strip away the myth and find the real person.
In the company of so many sick people I expected the week to be depressing, and so was surprised by its joyous atmosphere. We worshiped with the pilgrims and were bathed in the waters of Bernadette’s healing spring and yet by the end of our pilgrimage I left believing none of my prayers had been answered. In the middle of my first night home I woke too jet lagged to sleep and decided to read some of Graham Greene’s religious essays I had with me until daylight. While doing so I had an experience of Mary in which she revealed her true identity ( she is neither meek or mild) and assured me of her love for me. In that moment I fell in love with her and wished to make her known and loved. Soon afterward my sight was restored. And so in gratitude for my healing and desiring to enrich your personal prayer life by her presence, I bring to you on her birthday another look at Mary.
There is an ancient icon of Mary in a monastery on the holy mountain of Athos whose origin is shrouded in mystery. It is known as “the universe in the womb of the Mother of God.” It depicts the Virgin’s legs parted and veiled, so that the viewer looks between them into her body. In her womb is a picture of the cosmos. The icon is not well-known to outsiders and the monks themselves seem embarrassed by its image. It remains in place because it is a part of the monastery’s tradition. This embarrassment is understandable, but it needs to be replaced with a sense of wonder and awe with which the icon must originally have been written. It represents a central aspect of the mystery of the incarnation and an affirmation of the unique dignity of the virginal Mother of God.
It was a sermon preached at the imperial court at Constantinople on the feast of the Virgin Mary in the season of Christmas early in the history of Christianity that led to a dispute over divine maternity—that Mary is the mother of God—which caused a major theological dispute about the combined nature of Jesus, human and divine, and led to the official definition as part of Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the foremost of the Church Fathers, the theologians who did much to define the doctrine of the Church during the first centuries of its existence, presented the argument that carried the day. Cyril declared that the Word of God took our human nature upon himself at the very moment of the conception of Jesus in his mother’s womb, and he did this to redeem humanity from its very foundations. Cyril said that after the Incarnation all human conception may now be sanctified because of the union of divinity and humanity in Mary’s body. This is why Jesus blessed the institution of marriage. If the Word of God was fully united in the humanity Jesus took from Mary, then the person she conceived and bore was God himself. This mystery is beyond our ability to comprehend. Yet our salvation depends upon its truth—that God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and to deny that Mary gave birth to God is to deny the Incarnation. Our redemption depends on the fact that this human being, Mary, gave our mortal flesh to be united with the immortal Word of God when she conceived and gave birth to him. We must also remember the implication of this mystery of the Incarnation, that when the Creator united himself with humanity, he did so by extension with all creation. One of the promises of our salvation is that God will bring fulfillment at the end of time, and that the work of this glorification has begun in Mary’s body.
The ancient icon in the monastery at Mt. Athos that depicts the universe in Mary’s womb calls us afresh to see the holiness of the God- bearing world and to treat all that surrounds us as sacred and holy. The symbolism of the glorification of the world through the Incarnation became a common theme in both Eastern and Western Christian art in the Medieval period. In icons and sculpture those that show Mary and the seated Christ child facing forward in her lap represent the theological verity. While not as graphic as the holy icon at Athos, in these other examples where the child Jesus serves as the veil, the message is the same. Treat all things with reverence for they are holy.
Two other doctrinal issues closely associated with Mary’s role roiled the theological waters in those early formative years of Christianity, her immaculate conception and assumption into Heaven. When we speak of Jesus as being fully human like us but without sin we point to the core of a controversy that has disturbed the Church since the beginning. If Jesus was born without sin, if the original sin which taints all humanity was absent in him at conception, then by some mysterious grace Mary had been conceived without sin as well. Then because she was without sin and therefore not liable to the physical corruption that comes with it at death, she did not have to await the day of judgment, but was bodily assumed into Heaven, the first Christian to be so resurrected and a foreshadowing of all that awaits the faithful at the end of days.
These traditions have always been held popularly by Roman Catholicism. The same is true of Eastern Orthodoxy for the mystery of the immaculate conception. Instead of the doctrine of the assumption, Orthodox Christians have always honored her dormition or “falling asleep” instead. Yet it is specifically these aspects of Marian devotion, the immaculate conception and assumption, connected with the Incarnation but without strong scriptural basis that have met so much resistance from Protestants. Part of this comes from an unfamiliarity of what the Incarnation means and its theological implications, and part of its is a difficulty with the idea that God did not choose an ordinary woman to give birth to Jesus, but someone who was different, semi-divine, set apart at her conception, free from the stain of original sin. Supporters of the belief in the immaculate conception of Mary argue that there is scriptural support, in Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28. Such influential Church Fathers as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr regarded Mary as the new Eve, just as Jesus was the new Adam of redeemed creation.
Since the earliest days of Christianity Mary has been very popular with Christians. For men and women down through the centuries she played a major part in their devotional “habits of the heart.” One of the popular artistic representations of her a thousand years ago was of Mary’s cloak, within which all needing help could find protective shelter. A little later in history she emerged as the Black Madonna in remote, wilderness areas across Europe, a focus of peace and consolation for pilgrims fleeing the chaos of their lives. The theology behind it was drawn both from the story of creation in Genesis, God bringing order out of chaos, and Mary his willing instrument. About this time, the thirteenth century CE, two other devotional practices connected with Mary developed, the Angelus and the Rosary. In town and country with the tolling of a church bell at dawn, midday and dusk Christians stopped work to remember the mystery of the Incarnation and to pray the “hail Mary,” a practice similar to that of the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer that Europeans had encountered in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Franciscans popularized the prayer chain called the Rosary (the rose being a symbol of Mary) with its meditations or “mysteries on the lives of Jesus and his mother to underscore the human nature of Christ. In recent centuries Mary’s appearances during times of great social upheaval and uncertainty, notably at Lourdes and Fatima, have caused a popular revival of faith, miracles of healing and a strengthening of the Church.
During the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, theologians took a careful look at Mary in the Church to prune away superstition and error and to reveal her great value in the Good News of the Gospel. They prophesied that Mary would be the bridge that would bring about reconciliation with separated Christians and bring unity to the Church again. The great psychologist Carl Jung, an onlooker caught up in the enthusiasm of the debate, argued that Mary should have an equal place with Christ so that the masculine and feminine could be fully integrated in Christian spirituality. In recent years the usually conservative Anglican theologian John Macquarrie has said it might be helpful if we took seriously the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix.
In asking the question, “What about Mary?” what are we to make of all of this? My intention is to leave you with more questions than answers, but I do think it would be worthwhile for you to reconsider Mary, and if she has no place thus far, to ponder inviting her to be a part of your prayer life. Without taking anything away from Christ’s central role as mediator, we can ask her to join her prayers with ours. We can also turn to her as a model of the resurrected Christian life for guidance. She has much to teach us. And if we return to the mystery of the cosmos in her womb, we may begin to view the world and our place in it differently. We may reverence all creation as sacred and do what we can to preserve and treat it that way.
Graham Greene, the English novelist, said the most serious heresy threatening the modern world is the unimportance of the individual. Today the human body is regarded as so much expendable material, something to be eliminated wholesale by the most highly sophisticated methods of warfare. It has become anonymous carrion. Mary’s experience gives us a different message—all is sacred, all creation is redeemed, all is a reflection of the glory of God.
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