August 15th is a holiday commemorating the Virgin Mary (or, more specifically in the Roman tradition, her assumption into heaven at the end of her life). This year, August 15th was also my wife’s due date, but as it turned out out our baby was born a little over a week early on the feast of the Transfiguration instead. I guess baby Harold really likes holidays.
But now that Harold is already born, we’re getting a distinct experience of St. Mary’s Day that we don’t normally get. Mary, as you know, is the Mother of Christ. She’s also called Theotokos (the “God-bearer”) and Mother of God (recognizing that Christ is God) and several other honorifics. Naturally, what is standing out to my wife and I today is Mary’s motherhood.
The intimacy between mother and child is incomparable. And I say intimacy as slightly distinguished from love. The love between husband and wife, biblically, is the strongest earthly bond there is to be: it’s a committment for life. The love between parent and child is different in that it has a “sending out” quality; the children will eventually leave the parents. But the intimacy between mother and child is special. Husbands and wives see each other through thick and thin, good and ill. They see each other clothed and unclothed. I say this not to be crass, but to draw the contrast: husbands and wives bare themselves before each other for the purpose of love’s physical expressions. But a mother bares herself before her baby for the purpose of sustaining his or her life. A husband can survive without sex (despite our stereotypical cultural attitudes about it), but a baby cannot survive without a mother’s breasts. (I’m speaking on natural terms, obviously there is baby formula these days.)
So when we consider the infancy of Christ and the motherhood of Mary, we have opportunity to realize this unfathomable intimacy between God and a human. It’s something of a paradox to consider that Jesus, the Lord of Life, who said “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34) yet also depended upon the bosom of his mother throughout his infancy as does any other human child. The sheer intimacy is beyond my understanding. There was Mary, feeding baby God. There was God, suckling in a human’s embrace. What divine condescension! What trust He placed in Mary, and love He expressed for mere humanity!
God was long known as a loving God beforehand. Throughout the Old Testament the Prophets declared God’s love for His people. He made promises to Adam and Eve to defeat the ancient serpent through one of their descendants (ultimately, Christ). He made promises to Abraham to bless the world through his offspring (ultimately, Christ). He made promises to Moses to raise up an even greater prophet than he to carry out an even greater exodus into an even greater promised land (ultimately, Christ). He made promises to David that his family would always have a king on the throne (ultimately, Christ). He made promises to prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he would make a new and better covenant, replacing stony human hearts with living hearts of flesh (ultimately, by Christ). Throughout all this we constantly hear of God’s hesed, translated as God’s mercy, or love, or loving-kindness, or steadfast love. Hesed is a covenant-keeping love: he makes promises and he keeps them no matter how much we screw up our end of the deal.
But in the incarnation, God shows us a deeper form of love that had been foretold (such as in the story of Abraham & Isaac on the mountain) but had never been seen to this degree. God went far beyond the requirements of the covenants he had made. He didn’t simply raise up a new prophet or priest or king, he invested himself, the Person of the Son, with human flesh, to be himself the ultimate prophet and priest and king. And being human meant becoming poor (2 Cor. 8:9), humbling himself (Phil. 2:6-7), and being reliant upon earthly parents (Luke 2:51-52).
30 years or more before he gets to the Cross, we can see the unsurpassed love of God shining forth in the event of his incarnation, birth, and infancy in the care of the Virgin Mary.
As my wife and I settle into a new phase of life with a second child, now about 8 days old, this idea of intimacy is fresh on our minds. God gave himself to the world through Mary’s womb, and was raised by her through his childhood. As we look at the helplessness and implicit trust of a newborn, we can remember that this was how Jesus once was in the world. He could have fought or fled in the Garden of Gethsemane, but chose not to; he could have argued his case before Pilate and likely gotten his pardon, but he chose not to. As an infant, baby Jesus could not have done anything. In the natural course of his earthly life, he was entirely reliant upon Mary.
Mary’s intimacy with God, then, must have been of a unique caliber that the rest of us will never fully know or understand. To be so closely linked with the life of our Savior is a privilege beyond ordinary Christian experience! And so we exalt her as the greatest among the Saints of God; she who served Christ not only as a disciple, let alone as an apostle or missionary (of which we have no record), but as a mother. Let us also, therefore, honor and exalt the vocation of motherhood, for they give of their lives and bodies for the birth and sustenance and survival of another – another who will eventually grow up and leave.
Men, honor women accordingly; they have a marvelous gift as child-bearers, and through that can gain glimpses of the divine intimacy that we can never see for ourselves.
Women, do not scorn the gift of child-bearing as if it were a degradation or a burden. While not all are called to parenthood, the gift itself is there, and worthy of the greatest honor.
Let us pray:
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.