January 26, 2017 / Praxis
Erick Sierra reflects upon his journey across the diverse landscape of the Christian church in search for that place where God most fully dwells.
December 7, 2017
Jesus meets the woman caught in adultery, gives his little sermon—“Let the one without sin cast the first stone”—and a stone comes flying through the air. Jesus yells, “Mom!” There’s an immaculate conception joke for you.1 We non-Catholics do tend to overlook Mary.
At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church chose to move statues of Mary from the front-and-center position in Catholic churches to the side aisles and to then put Jesus on the cross, front and center. It’s a move we Protestants would applaud. In contrast, we have moved Mary from the side aisles of the church out to the back of the church. She doesn’t even get to come in. An annual rendition of “Mary Did You Know” doesn’t fix that.
I visited Notre Dame once for a football game. And I saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said “God may not care who wins the football game but his mother does.” Do we Protestants also care about Mary? And if so, how?
Here’s what Mary shows us: our God gets born. All faiths claim that God is great, mighty, powerful, and those things are all on our God’s business card. We Christians say something in addition, something a good deal weirder. We say that God is also needy, vulnerable, and entirely dependent on us. God has eyelashes and a spleen and a Jewish mother. Mary is a red string tied around our finger so that we’ll never forget that, oh yeah, our God isn’t just great. Our God is also flesh. Hear this word:
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. (Luke 1:39–45 NRSVA)
When Mary is pregnant with the Son of God, she does what most pregnant women do—she goes to an older relative for support. In this case that relative is her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant long after the usual age of childbearing, like the matriarchs of ancient Israel. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, will tilt the world on its axis. At this high point of salvation for all of human history there is no man present or necessary. There are just two women, one too old and one too young, both bearing children who will make all things new. The visitation, the church has long called this meeting. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, calls this meeting a “conspiracy of hope.”2 Those of us who go to entirely too many meetings for a living can take heart. Look what God can do with a meeting! In just six verses, the story lays out all of salvation.
This meeting goes a good deal better than some of the meetings described earlier in Luke. In chapter 1, we observe the father of John the Baptist, a temple priest named Zechariah. He’s a professional religious type. He’s in charge at that temple. And when an angel turns up with some instructions, Zechariah says, “Wait, I come into this building every day, and the one thing that never happens is that an angel turns up with instructions from God. This can’t happen. I have a master of divinity to prove it.”
The angel says, “Um, I’m Gabriel. I stand in the very presence of God, and since you don’t believe me, you’re not allowed to talk anymore.”
So God sends Gabriel on his second errand. To a teenager. A kid. Not one with any particular pedigree that’d make us expect God to turn up. She’s young and unmarried. She’s a woman and a Jew. That’s not how we human beings do power. But this is not the decision of a human being.
Gabriel says, “OK, this is a little weird, but you’re going to have a kid.”
Mary says, “I am a kid.”
“Shut up. You’re going to have a kid. And your kid will be God’s kid. And y’all’s kid will save the universe. That’s the plan.”
And the angel and all of creation wait with bated breath to see what she will say.
And Mary says, “OK.”
A Baptist preacher I know says that “salvation begins with Mary’s yes.”3 Unlike Zechariah, a properly trained religious professional who says nah, Mary, the first Christian, says, “Sure, I’m in. Whatever you want God.” And we Christians have tried to go on saying “whatever you want God” ever since.
I wonder about you. What outrageous plan does God want to birth in your life? What risk does God want you to take? What cockamamy idea is God hatching, waiting for you to stick your neck out and to say “OK, count me in.”
In our story for today Elizabeth feels her child, John the Baptist, kick, perhaps for the first time. Many of you mothers will remember where you were when you first felt your child move within you. They say that the first kick is more like a flutter or tickle, something you hardly notice. My wife, Jaylynn, first noticed our Jack flutter during church, while she was getting ready to preach. She first felt our Sam while she was at a Duke basketball game. As for our third, Will, well, you never remember quite as well with the later kids, do you?
Elizabeth first feels her child flutter during this conspiracy-of-hope meeting. The two relatives meet, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. You may remember King David dancing before the ark of the covenant in the book of Samuel. Here, John the Baptist dances before the new ark, Mary, the one who bears the very presence of God inside her.4 John the Baptist is already leaping before Jesus when he’s only a few months in utero and Jesus is barely a fetus. We might think of this as the first church service, the first jolt of joy in the presence of Jesus.
This story has been taken as an argument for infant baptism—if John can recognize Jesus before either of them are born, surely we can baptize babies after they’re born. I’m partly joking there, but the deeper, more significant point of this story is the newest addition to the human family, Jesus. God as a zygote. The life of the world dividing itself into an ever more complex bundle of cells. The holy one of Israel kept alive by amniotic fluid and a cord from his mom to his own belly. God in a womb. That’s enough to make anyone leap, whether they happen to be born or not.
Christmas is really about a staggering reversal. In our world, the wealthy and powerful are on top, and everybody else is underneath, scrambling for position. In our world, we learn of important news in announcements delivered over the internet, on television, in presidential press conferences, or, heaven help us, on Twitter. But when God has something new to announce, he tells a teenager and an old woman from the middle of nowhere who rejoice at what God’s going to do before anyone else on the planet even knows about it. And even in this pairing, Elizabeth is powerful, compared to Mary: she’s more socially prominent, she’s married to a priest, she’s from a good family—tradition would dictate that Mary show her honor. But when Mary comes to her door, Elizabeth says, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” God takes those things we normally expect, the way things “always” work, and God turns them upside down. Mary announces, “God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts and exalted the lowly and weak.” In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem the Syrian said that at Christmas the reins of the universe are handed to a baby.5 Sounds fun and dangerous, doesn’t it? Babies don’t normally drive chariots, but that’s how God does things.
This is why the church has long honored Mary as the mother of our Lord. She’s a reminder that in Christianity God is a human being; he is one of us in absolutely every way that matters. This is the point at which the Jews and Muslims get off the bus. You think God is human, they ask. That’s blasphemy, idolatry, outrage!
In fact, nonreligious people object here too. Most people think of God as a really, really powerful and far away dude. Perhaps they imagine a bearded guy on a throne with lightning bolts ready to zap wrongdoers. Surely God wouldn’t dirty himself with this process of getting born. And we Christians must look toward Mary and say, most assuredly and confidently, yes. In the language of the hymn, “lo he shuns not the virgin’s womb.” God is not disgusted by the idea of getting born; instead, God enters that process and gets born himself. And this is the dignity of every woman, of every childbirth, of every human being walking around on the planet. God got born. God has a mom. God ducks low, gets beneath us, and is dependent on us for life itself. Our God gets involved in the guts of our life, scrambles into wombs and wears diapers and is not above afterbirth. That’s about as shocking as I can put it friends—God is flesh.
And this turns us to wonder. The language of wonder is poetry, hymnody, praise, doxology. When language starts to crack and strain under the freight of talking about God, we put it into verse, rhyme it, make clear it’s beautiful even if we can’t understand it all. To that end, Madeleine L’Engle writes of the season of Advent as “wild” and “irrational,” noting that “had Mary been filled with reason” and not love, “there’d have been no room for the child.”6 We can talk about Mary and the virgin birth and God Almighty under a teenager’s ribs, and it’ll make a sort of sense but only a poet’s sense, a lover’s sense, not a physicist’s sense or a mathematician’s sense. But there is more than one kind of sense out there.
I said before that we Protestants have not given much attention to Mary in her own right, and I’d say this is appropriate. We make a mistake if we think Mary is important for her own sake, without reference to Jesus. Mary is the guarantee of God’s humanity, the red thread reminding us that God has a belly button. Anytime we bump into Mary, she’s constantly saying, “Here, let me introduce you to my son.” That’s as it should be.
But Protestants have paid quite a lot of attention to the virgin birth. It seems like the perfect point to examine the miraculous. Did that really happen? Come on, surely Mary just got pregnant, and her child turned out pretty special—happens all the time, right? During the time of the early church, pagans ridiculed us for following a savior without a daddy. They said we have nasty words for boys without daddies, as we insisted God was Jesus’s actual Father.
There are lots of ways to think about the virgin birth, so I’ll give you my favorite.7 When we trust in Jesus, when we place our life wholly in his hands, when we nestle in his arms the way he nestled in Mary’s arms, things happen. Seeds are planted. They grow. New ministries take root. Lives are changed. The poor are fed, and the humble blessed. Do you see that? Faith bears fruit; trust brings about things that don’t exist. Anytime one of us trusts God, new things get born. Mary of Nazareth, mother of our Lord, trusted God so much that she got pregnant. An angel showed up and said, “Look, I know you’re not married. I know you’re part of a religion most of the world hates. I know you’re a teenage kid from a town no one likes. I know all that. But God wants to get born in your untouched womb.” What’d Mary do? She said OK. And her belly swelled. When God shows up to us, friends, and says, “Hey, look, I know this is weird, but this is what I want,” What’s our response? And watch if your back doesn’t start to ache and your feet to swell and something new doesn’t get born into the world.
Another thing to say about the birth is this—it’s difficult. Lots of people I know and love—people you know and love too—would love to be pregnant and are not. They would have loved to have been pregnant and never were. And here in Advent we have these stories of women getting pregnant too young and too old. And lots of folks we love ask, “Why not me?” For even in our age of medical marvels, it doesn’t always work to coax pregnancy out of reluctant bodies.
Here’s another problem. Sometimes it works the wrong way. We do have children, and they don’t turn out the way we hope, and that’s our deepest disappointment in life. Or we adopt children to get around infertility issues, and that adoption turns out just as difficult as not having a child. I’m just struck that childbearing or not-bearing, adopting or not-adopting, becomes a place for the greatest joy and also the greatest potential disappointment in our lives. And maybe that’s why God gets born: to start the renewal of the cosmos in our place of deepest pain. Karl Barth said of infertility that the child on whom the hope of the world hangs has “already come.”8 No one has to have a child now that Jesus is born in our flesh. That doesn’t help if you’re the one desperate for a baby, or if someone you love is, I realize! But I do wonder about holding the infant Christ close to our place of deepest pain, sorrow, and disappointment, and seeing what sort of healing he can bring right there.
The traditions of Christendom that honor Mary also believe that she can play a tremendous role in such trials. Mary understands our sorrow. She watched helplessly as her son, God’s Son, was undone. Old Simeon promises her, “A sword will pierce your soul too” (Luke 2:35), and lo, it came to pass.
So here’s what all these Advent stories about Mary suggest: Plan all you want—not to do so would be irresponsible. But expect to be surprised. Mary couldn’t have guessed what was coming that day. The day of Gabriel’s appearance most likely seemed ordinary. As a faithful Jew she may have gone to synagogue and recited the prayers and songs of her people, but by that night, Mary was pregnant with God’s child. Her life was never the same, and the changes were not always easy, but wonder of wonders, surprisiest of surprises, she had faith and God got born from the very stuff of us, Mary’s womb. Israel’s hope was in a God with hair, a God with cells, just like you and me—a God who is coming again to make all things new.
And so my hope is that the churches of the Reformation, like all churches, will find a warm spot in their heart for Mary, for her embrace of the great surprise. Because all she does is adore her son. In her most famous prayer, the Magnificat, Mary says, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). A friend wrote an article on Mary for Protestants called “Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed”—let’s return to the biblical all, shall we?9 For all will one day adore her son.
Jason Byassee teaches preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is coauthor of Faithful and Fractured, forthcoming in April 2018 from Baker.