Today is set aside in the church’s calendar to celebrate Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The title by which she is most well-known in the Western world is as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has tended to lead to a preoccupation with Mary’s virginal status. The Roman Catholic tradition followed this road to an interesting set of conclusions unique to that tradition and not shared by the rest of the Christian world: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which maintained that Mary was born “without sin”, thereby setting her apart from the rest of humanity, and the doctrine of the Assumption, which says that upon Mary’s death, her body was taken up or “assumed” into heaven. All of these factors, at least two of which have to do with a desire to maintain Mary is some set of purity, have, I think, obscured what this feast day really calls us to reflect upon: the courage required to give birth to God in the world.
In the Eastern Christian world, the most well-known title for Mary is the Greek word “theotokos”, which means God-bearer. It is a title that does not emphasize Mary as a virgin, and the Eastern church deeply disagrees with the Roman Catholic idea of immaculate conception that separates Mary from the rest of the human race. The title God-bearer emphasizes, instead, what Mary did: she was the bearer of God incarnate in Christ into the world. And, in a very real sense, her courage to do so is a model for the courage that all followers of Jesus are called to have, the courage to allow Christ to be born in us, and the courage to be bearers of the Christ into the pain and brokenness of the world.
To me, this seems like a particularly urgent calling in today’s world. Across the country and around the world there is a rising tide of fear, hatred, prejudice, violence, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny. We stand facing environmental crises that are so overwhelming that many people are tempted to deny their existence. It seems that a world we had thought to have made progress toward a more enlightened way of living is slipping back into darkness. And, sadly, too many people are using religion as a justification for that slipping backward, and in doing so, are twisting our religious traditions out of shape.
So on this day when we remember the courage of Mary is saying “Yes” to becoming a bearer of God’s light into the world, let us also remember that this same invitation is given to us. May we, too, have the courage to say yes. May we have the courage that shines through in every word of Mary’s song:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.