I’ve always been fascinated by today’s gospel reading of the Annunciation. At one point in my life, when I was much younger, Mary was sort of a hero to me – the epitome of the idea that the last shall be first, this lowly maiden chosen by God to receive great honor because of her humility and virtue. It was like she got the premier merit scholarship of sainthood and Godly preference. At other points in my life, I found the story a bit disappointing, and Mary’s character to be kind of a wet rag. Her easy surrender to the angel’s proclamation, her unquestioning “yes” to God, seemed naïve or foolish at best. The Annunciation, that kickstarter to the Christmas countdown, is a fascinating mixture of things, especially for its main character.
Mary is greeted as “favored one”, but this means anything but a joyride for her. Being in God’s favor, being the one chosen to be the bearer of God incarnate, means becoming pregnant out of wedlock, risking being shunned by her fiancé, the possibility of becoming homeless, destitute, with a young mouth to feed… having to be pregnant for 9 months – the morning sickness, the physical discomfort… it meant having to go through childbirth alone and unassisted, with ox and ass as her midwives and complete strangers – stinky, dirty shepherds, and foreign magi – to witness and celebrate this child’s birth. No family bringing balloons and flowers to the delivery room, no nurses to help you learn how to swaddle. It meant raising a child whose execution she would one day have to witness. It meant saying yes to the impossible, the impossibly painful, and the impossibly miraculous.
This young woman was told she would give birth to God. That she would usher in the very event we celebrate tomorrow. That celebration of Emmanuel, of God-with-us, of the divine taking on our human nature and entering into this world in order to redeem it. The news the angel Gabriel brought her wasn’t just news about the things that would happen to her – to her body, to her life – but about things that would happen to the world as God chose to enter it. The angel declared that nothing was impossible with God.
We often hear the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” as a way of affirming the Christian religious celebration of Christmas, or at the very least an attempt to prevent commercialism from completely hijacking the holiday. But very often, the image associated with a statement like that is a lovely and docile one: a nativity scene of baby Jesus calmly lying in a manger, flanked by Mary and Joseph and some shepherds, magi and animals, all gazing lovingly upon the newborn babe. The urgency of the Christmas story is easily dismissed in this sentiment when it’s all about the cute little baby being adored by his parents in a stable, and not about the difficulties Mary and Joseph had to endure in order for this miraculous birth to occur.
The birth of Jesus is full of trial and tribulation. Joseph and Mary have to make a long journey to Bethlehem in her third trimester – a trip any 21st century OB/GYN would surely have advised against. When they finally arrive at their destination, there is nowhere for them to stay. You can hear the desperation in Joseph’s voice as he tries to find a place – anywhere – for them to lay their heads as Mary is literally groaning in labor pains. Jesus might be the reason for the season, but this part of his birth story is certainly not the stuff of Hallmark cards and sentimental holiday displays.
Yet at Christmas, this is what we celebrate – a birth. The end result of pregnant expectation. The culmination of a season of waiting in a moment of hope. With all its messiness, all its anxiety, and all its joy. We celebrate the emergence of new life amidst great trial. The joy of light after a season of darkness. We celebrate the arrival of something long-expected against all odds and challenging circumstances. That moment of elation when a long period of toil produces something miraculous. We join with the other strangers who paid him homage that first Christmas night and welcome with joy and hope the coming of this baby whom God had asked Mary to bring into the world. We celebrate the fact that nothing is impossible with God. That out of great tribulation can come great triumph. That Mary’s yes to God meant yes to something scary and messy and painful and wondrous and life-changing all at the same time.
But for Christians, Christmas isn’t only about Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago. It is about his birth here and now, each and every day. It is about how we all are called not to join the shepherds and the magi, but Mary. It is about how we, like Mary, are all called by God to be bearers of God in this world. The 13th century philosopher and theologian Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be Mothers of God, for God is constantly needing to be born.” God is constantly needing to be born. Every grief, every anxiety, every abuse, every violent act, every despair, every loneliness, every hardness of heart, every disagreement, every scorn, needs the birth of God’s love and light from each and every one of us. St. Francis of Assisi said, “We are mothers when we carry God in our hearts and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to God through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.”
God is brought into this world through our holy activity just as God was brought into the world 2000 years ago through Mary’s. Mary’s holy activity shines as an example for us. Her “yes” to God, her willingness to bring God into the world, was an example of faith in not only God’s ability to do the impossible, but her own ability to do the impossible. To get pregnant out of wedlock, risk the reaction of her fiancé and the hope she would not become homeless and destitute, have a child in the most dire of circumstances, raise that child to be a sacrificial lamb for slaughter just as he was reaching the prime of his life… Mary’s “yes” to being a God-bearer was a “yes” to her own strength as well as a “yes” to God’s. It was her “yes” to an impossibly difficult choice.
Birth is not an easy process. However anticipated, however awaited and longed for, the emergence of new life is painful and difficult. “In pain you shall bring forth children,” God declared to Eve as she and Adam were cursed and banished from the Garden of Eden. Birth has always been the pairing of pain with joy. Yet, in the end, birth celebrates the triumph of joy over pain, of hope over despair, of life over death.
I’ve heard it explained that Christmas is about Jesus being born in our hearts. I partially agree. Certainly as Christians, we invite Jesus to be born in our hearts, to dwell there, to grow there. But Christmas isn’t just about our own internal, personal stuff, how we work it out with God one on one, about the stuff that happens within us as God sort of gestates in our hearts. Christmas is about the boundary- and barrier-breaking birth of God in human form, dwelling among us. Christmas invites us to give birth to God not only in our hearts, but into the world, as Mary did. It is not only the invitation to harbor and nurture God within ourselves, but the invitation to release God’s love into the world around us. We are all called to give birth to God in this world. With all its messiness, all its anxiety, and all its joy. Greetings, favored ones; you, too, are called to be Mothers of God.