At the birth of a child, while the event is the child’s birth, the focus is more usually on the mother. Life in the Church is no different; at this time, much light is shone on Mary — for instance, much is made of her as the New Eve, the counterpart to Jesus as the New Adam. This, of course, takes us back to those early Biblical stories in the Book of Genesis. There, however, our focus has tended to settle on, not the story of Creation, but on the story of The Fall. Instead of centring our attention on the joy and wonder of new Creation (Isaiah 65:17), our interest seems preoccupied with our own sinfulness and so on our need of being saved. (2 Peter 2:22) I find it kind of puts a bit of a pall on the celebration — it’s like continuing to focus on the difficulties of a woman’s labour though she has successfully given birth, rather than as St John puts it: ‘She forgets her suffering in her joy that she has brought a human being into the world. (John 16:21) While it may be necessary for us to acknowledge our need of Redemption (Romans 7:24-25) and so be able to embark on the way of conversion, it is good to just simply rejoice with Mary in the birth of her son, especially as in him the Messiah has come — much along the lines suggested in Isaiah: when God said that he would no longer call to mind past human sinfulness because he is making the world new again, he says, “Pay close attention now: I’m creating new heavens and a new earth. All those earlier troubles are things of the past, to be forgotten. Be glad and rejoice for what I am creating: I am creating Jerusalem as sheer joy, and my people as pure delight.” (Isaiah 65:17-8) Or like Paul — though he can tell us frankly of the reality of his own powerlessness when it comes to sin, he does not wallow there but goes on: “But thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ! For there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 7:25-8:1) Or as today’s Gospel simply puts it: ‘As for the shepherds, they went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.” (Luke 2:20) Now is the time to rejoice with Mary in the birth of her Son.
Today we celebrate Mary under the title of Mother of God. It all seems very exalted — far above the everyday of the scene that is presented in today’s Gospel, which is but the ending of the story told us on Christmas night and in which a woman accompanied by her husband is forced to give birth to her child in makeshift arrangements in a stable far from home. And far above us, in the commonplace of this world. In wondering what to make of all this, in regard to Mary I found in myself a longing for something a little more ordinary, something I could more readily relate to. My thoughts strayed to Joseph, the husband of Mary, whom tradition has been less inclined to exalt. In St Francis’ Church down in the city there is a wonderful statue of him teaching the boy Jesus the Torah. It always reminds me of my time in Jerusalem when I visited the Wailing Wall, as the Western Wall of the Temple is known. The area is regarded as a Synagogue, and so it is segregated along sexual lines. There, it was really lovely to see fathers bringing their sons to prayer, to pray with them and to show them how to pray, and they do it together: a boy and his dad. This was the man’s job, for women could not go there. I wondered: What special thing could Mary have taught the boy Jesus?
As I pondered on this (C.f.: Luke 2:19), I remembered the story of The Annunciation. When Mary says to the angel who had just told her she was to bear a son, “How shall this be, as I have intimacy with no man?” the angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” “Let what you have said be done to me,” answered Mary. (Luke 1:34-35, 38) This brought to mind the description of Jesus’ own baptism by John: ‘And, immediately upon rising up out of the water, he saw the heaven being rent apart and the Spirit descending on him as a dove.’ (Mark 1:10) What Mary had to teach the boy Jesus was what she already knew: she taught him how to so co-operate with God’s Spirit, that those who see it might recognise in him one who can truly be called God’s Son. (Luke 3:22. C.f.: 1:35; John 10:36-38; Mark 15:39) Mary’s instruction of her son came to its completion/fulfilment at The Wedding Feast at Cana. “They have no wine,” she says to him. “What, madam, is that to do with me and you?” he replies. “My hour has not arrived,” he says to her. But, in her confidence in him, his mother just says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:3-5) Here we can see Mary assuring her child that he can do it, and giving him that final shove needed to get him going — much like a mother bird finally turfing her timid chick out of the nest, forcing it to fly … as she knows it can. Putting together what he got from both Mary and Joseph, we get the man, Jesus, a man who knows the ways of God and who is able to manifest God in what he does. (John 5:19; 14:9)
Back to the image of Mary as the new Eve, what it has to convey to us is that, in the New World, Mary is our Mother, too. (John 19:26-27) In this celebration of Mary as Mother of God, what we can take home from it is that Jesus is our brother! (Romans 8:29) For his mother is our mother, too. (C.f.: John 20:17; 1 John 3:2) When we feel called to be ‘busy about our Father’s business’ (Luke 2:49), especially when we are rather timorously taking our first steps, if we listen carefully, we will hear our Mother saying to those whom we are called to assist (John 2:3), “Do whatever he tells you.” Then we will know that we can do it, then we will know that we are ready; like Jesus, we, too, can draw confidence from our Mother and go on to have a go. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 68:5) In doing this, in going to those to whom we are sent and tending to their need, we will know ourselves ready to receive that same baptism that Jesus had to undergo (John 2:3Mark 10:38; Romans 6:3-4; 8:9; John 3:5-6; Titus 3:5), there to hear those beautiful words: “You are my much loved son.” (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:68-70) Then we will know ourselves as truly Christ’s brother — having both the same mother and the same Father! (John 20:17b) Just so are we reborn in the new world of the coming Kingdom, where all things are made new again, sisters and brothers of one and all. “My dear friends, we are already God's children, but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed,” says St John. (1 John 3:2) At the moment, we are like the new born child — what we are to be has not yet been revealed. (C.f.: Luke 1:66) Yet, now, we ARE children of God; we can and should rejoice in this. (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:5) For as St Paul puts it: “And because you are sons and daughters, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son/a daughter, and if a son or daughter, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:6-7) What we are to be may not yet have been revealed, yet we know ‘we shall be like him’ (1 John 3:2): a true son/daughter of God, a brother or sister to Christ Jesus, one whose place in our Father’s house is assured. (John 8:35) This is the promise, a promise of our God who is faithful, a promise we can rely on. (Hebrews 6:17) Despite appearances, this is our destiny (Galatians 4:1ff; Romans 7:13-8:3); this is something we should celebrate.
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO