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What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring him laud
The babe, the son of Mary
~ from “What Child Is This?”
Have you given much thought over the years to the mother of Jesus? I’ll be honest—I hadn’t. Oh, I’d give her a nod at Christmas, but it wasn’t until this last year, and especially as I was writing a book about Mary Magdalene that also had “Imma Mary” in it (as I called her in the book to keep all the Marys straight) that I really paused to consider this woman.
Mary. She alone, out of all the women in Israel, out of all the women in history, was chosen to bear Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mary was unlike any other person ever to live because of that. Mary was more than special—Mary was blessed, full of grace, and entrusted with the very life of the Son of God.
Why am I thinking enough about Mary now to want to write about her? Well, as Advent approached this year, I was so excited for it…but then life and exhaustion kicked in, and by the time the season actually began, I was…tired. Worn out. Some of my joy had leaked out. And as I prayed about how to reclaim it, this was what I sensed God whispering in my heart:
Consider the joy of Mary.
I thought I’d better start with identifying who she really was. We know little about her from Scripture alone, other than that she was of the lineage of David, from a humble family, engaged to a man named Joseph, and a virgin who had never known a man.
We know that when the angel said, “This is what God will do,” Mary said the most important words a human could ever say: “Yes. Let it be to me according to His will.” She put herself willingly into the hands of God…and then God came and dwelled inside her in a way never done before or since.
One of the earliest names for Mary is Theotokos—literally, “God bearer.” If we believe Christ was not only fully man but also fully God, then we must believe that divine nature existed alongside the human nature from the moment of conception. That means that God—God Himself, God the Son—consented to being wrapped in human flesh and relying on a woman for His nourishment, protection, love, and every other need. That means that a mortal woman gave birth to immortal God in the form of Jesus. That’s pretty amazing, right? We give great respect to the apostles and disciples…but do we give enough respect to this woman?
Mary. Imagine, for a moment, being Mary. Any of you who are mothers know well how it feels to be pregnant. I remember the awe of feeling that life—separate from mine and yet such a part of me—stirring in my abdomen. I remember pressing a hand to that tiny little bump and thinking, Move again, little one! I remember how, by the end of my terms, those movements had become not only VERY noticeable, but familiar. This is my baby, I would think. I knew what time of day they moved around the most. I knew when they were stretching out and when they were curled up. I knew them, and I loved them, and despite the physical discomfort there at the end, I loved cradling them in my womb. I knew profound, unspeakable joy at the very thought of them.
And my babies are “just” regular babies. Very much human. Part me, part David. As I pressed a hand to where an elbow or foot or hand was tracking against my abdomen, I didn’t have to wonder where they had come from or how, how God had done this thing. I didn’t have to wonder what “son of God” really meant.
Can you imagine Mary’s joy, Mary’s wonder? Show me just a sliver of it—that’s my prayer this Advent. Show me just a sliver of the wonder and joy Mary must have felt at holding the sacred body of Christ within her own. At holding God in her flesh. At having the salvation of the world in the ark of her womb.
I remember wondering, as labor loomed on the horizon with both of my pregnancies, if I would feel empty after giving birth. For so many months, that little unseen child dominated my thoughts and my concerns and my very body. Daily, everyday activities were dictated by that little life, from what I could eat to what exercise I could do to what clothes I could wear. For those months, me was us. My thoughts had to bend to consider not just my physicality, but our physicality. When they were born, would that change? Would I press a hand to my stomach and think, Where are you, precious one?
But no—because once they were born, I could hold them in my arms instead. I could kiss their precious face and count their precious toes. I could watch their rosebud lips purse and move. I could see their eyes seeing me and know that finally, somehow, I could know them more because they were no longer inside me. By becoming their own, full self, by their bodies becoming only their own and no longer physically connected to mine, I could know them better. Isn’t that strange? Because now my arms and eyes and nose and mouth and ears, my fingertips and cheek and breasts, could sense them. We are creatures of sensation, of body, of form. Those senses God has given us are how we know.
Imagine Mary. Imagine her giving birth to this perfect little baby, who truly was perfect. Knowing that those tiny fingers that wrapped around hers were the same ones that had formed the universe. Imagine holding that baby in her arms and wondering how, HOW God had made Himself so small. How the all-powerful one could be so helpless…how she had been chosen to hold Him, to protect Him, to love Him. Joy, awe, wonder…those words are just the beginning. For the months she carried Him, Mary knew God like no one else in history ever had or would. But it was when He was born, as He grew, as He fulfilled His destiny, that she knew Him even more.
Because really, what does it mean for God to take on flesh? He is Spirit, He is Love, He is Truth…He is all these ideas and metaphysical forms. He is a force that cannot possibly be confined to bone and sinew and blood and muscle and nerves and skin.
Yet He was. Because He chose to be. He chose to wrap His divine nature in a couple cells and be there as they multiplied, as they grew within a woman. He chose to put Himself in a position where His life was sustained by an umbilical cord, His body dependent on the life of another. This woman, full of grace, called Mary. He chose to let His creation help create His physical body…a body that He would then offer up for us. A body which He would invite us to become part of through Holy Communion. A body that He didn’t just cast off after death, but which He took up again, taking it with Him into Heaven.
A body that we now are. We are the body of Christ on earth, while His physical body reigns in heaven. We are the body, because He gave it to us, gives it to us still, every time we come together and break the bread and drink the cup. We are the body.
The same body that was formed in Mary’s womb. So what does that make her to us? Our mother. And when she held that infant Jesus, she cradled all of us. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? That by being co-heirs with Christ, by sharing in Him as He invites us to do, we not only gain a Father in heaven, but a mother too? Yes, she was a human mother. “Just like us.” And that’s what should make us love and honor her the most. Like all the disciples and apostles, she was chosen by God Himself to be part of the foundation of the Church, part of the salvation story. A story we get to participate in now.
One of the most mind-bending things about a God of eternity is how He is both inside and outside of time. Jesus came at a specific point in history; Jesus will come again at a specific time in the future; but Jesus comes now, every day, every year. He comes into our hearts and into our lives. We remember Him in this season so that it stays ever new, ever real to us. God has become flesh.
This is Christ, Christ the king. Master of the universe and man of mortal flesh.
Did Mary know, as she held her baby, what His life would look like? Not specifically. Of course not. Do you know what your baby will do as you hold that newly born being in your arms? She knew He was the Son of God. She knew He had come for the salvation of the world. But what would that mean? What would it look like? She couldn’t know, because it had never happened before in all of human history. She would have to wait and see. She would have to ponder. She would have to do her best to love Him in a way worthy of Him.
Haste, haste to bring Him laud—to offer Him every gift you have, because He is worthy of it all. This babe. This God. This creator who became part of His creation.
Son of God…son of Mary.