The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

One of the many gems of our liturgical space here at the monastery is the marble statue of the young Mary of Nazareth—whose nativity the church remembers today—and her new child, the infant Jesus. As I prepared for today’s celebration, the image of this statue kept returning to me, set against the memory of an episode it doubtless provoked one spring day shortly after I was clothed as a novice. Two young men entered the chapel about fifteen minutes into the Noon Office. During the time of intercession one of them not so inconspicuously asked, “Is there a Bible in this place? Where’s the Bible?” As we began the retiring procession following the Office, the two leapt to their appointed task: “We have a message from the Spirit,” one began as they attempted to call us wayward Episcopalians back from the thralls of idolatry, and surrender (what they mistook for) pagan practice and charism. “Mary’s not gonna save you,” one of them remarked.

This episode remained with me for some time because it revealed a set of pretty common misconceptions about the esteem and reverence with which the church holds Mary of Nazareth, whom the Greek Church calls Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Without a window into the significance of Mary, it is easy to mistake her for a mere transposition of some pagan fertility goddess, the ancient fém-divine baptized and chastened. With such a window curtained, an image of Mary with the child Jesus is easily read as an idol, rather than an icon into a profound mystery.

Conscious of these misunderstandings, I want to center our attention on this statue in a different light. The artist has given the viewer a sermon in stone. When I first encountered this statue I was distracted by the severity of the face of Jesus. The infant Lord’s body supports a head that could very easily belong to a middle-aged man. His gaze is grave and serious, brimming with the full weight of Christ’s divinity now expressed in weak, dependent, time-bound flesh. His tiny arm stretches toward the viewer in a gesture of blessing.

Yet the larger and more captivating mystery communicated by this statue speaks once we look at Mary, the young Galilean peasant girl. Mary may cradle in her arms a load of unimaginable existential and spiritual weight, yet she does so with the most elegant grace and poise. She is not burdened by the strange new thing to which God has called her. The serenity of her face is fixed on the infant Jesus, inviting the viewer to behold the fruit of her womb. The strength of her graceful stance and the tranquility of her face reveal a human being who does not know herself or her desire to be in competition with God or God’s desire. There is no rivalry between her humanity and the infinite grace she now shoulders. For this otherwise anonymous Galilean peasant girl is confident that, as Paul puts it in the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, “…all things work together for good for those who love God.”[1]

All things. The limitations of her material state; the limitations of her virginity; the pressures of an unexpected child; her family’s marginal status in the eyes of her contemporaries and the scandal of her pre-marital pregnancy;[2] indeed the eventual agony of witnessing her child’s torture and execution. Yet, with a heart firmly fixed on God’s love, Mary cooperates with God’s call—a call for which she does not presume to ask and from which she does not shrink back in a spirit of unworthiness. She does not allow the weight of her finitude to keep her from trusting God’s power to call, to justify, and to glorify.[3] She trusts that the lightness of her finitude will not be crushed by the weight of the infinity that lovingly presses upon her.

If all things work together for good for those who love God, there is at last no competition between God’s divinity and our humanity. The distance has been closed. The veil between heaven and earth has been opened in the flesh of a girl otherwise anonymous to history.

Holy Mary of Nazareth, God-bearer, whom the church (defying all objections) remembers today.


[1] Romans 8:28

[2] Matthew 1:24

[3] Allusion to Romans 8:30

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1 Comment

  1. Laurna Tallman on September 10, 2020 at 08:49

    “and from which she does not shrink back in a spirit of unworthiness”

    How difficult it is to maintain that sense of vocation when you find that God has led you into a spectacular, new understanding of something that the experts have not yet learned. What would you do, as a person without medical training, if you discovered a cure for cancer? In 2006, I first cured our schizophrenic son with a simple, innovative music therapy. However, healing did not entirely heal his addictions although it gave him a platform for learning self-control. He has been healed from three relapses (2008, 2016, 2017), and and is in the process of recovering once again. Through my counselling, a few dozen other people have used Focused Listening to heal a range of mental and physical illnesses. In 2008, I researched the field and produced a neurological explanation for this healing process that led to a cascade of further discoveries about the role of the ears, especially of the right ear, in mental and physical health. Healing the ear also opens people with weak ears to the possibility of spiritual growth. Now at the age of 79, I need the qualities of Mary that you describe to keep me searching for a means of getting my unique learning into the medical mainstream or into some branch of the Church that grasps the importance of my discoveries or directly to the people in need. At present, my work is as buried in obscurity as was Mary’s in her obedience to God’s will. I see my work as a continuation of the healing work of Jesus. Thank you for strengthening my faith that this phase, too, of my journey is covered by God’s grace.

    Music exercises a tiny muscle in the ear so that it becomes able to transmit normal amounts of high-frequency sound energy into the brain. The right ear especially serves the left, rational half of the brain to make it able to dominate the right, emotional half of the brain. The range of aberrations are caused when the left-brain loses some degree of its normal dominance in integrative processes between the cerebral hemispheres. The neurological paradigm is quite simple. It unravels questions about behavior that have puzzled thinkers for millennia.

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