‘When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman…’
Today, it’s this ‘born of a woman’ that shines out. Today is the octave day of Christmas, the start of another year, and the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. ‘Hail, holy Mother’, says the Entrance Antiphon, ‘who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever.’
So let’s follow the grain of the Liturgy and look at Mary.
‘As for Mary,’ the Gospel says, ‘she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ Christmas was something Mary took inside herself and thought about. It engaged her memory:‘she treasured all these things / all these words.’ She kept them, remembered them, didn’t forgot them. And they didn’t just sit there, at the back of her mind, as it were. She ‘pondered them in her heart.’ Literally, ‘she threw them around’, turned them over, mulled them over. She looked at them from different angles. She was trying with God’s help to understand their meaning. She had a child in her arms and the words of angels and shepherds in her mind. And she wanted to put all this together. She wanted to make sense of it.
‘As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ When I was a boy, these words intrigued me. And now what strikes me is just what an experience the first Christmas must have been for Mary. That’s why she had to think about it. We don’t know what she thought; it’s her secret. But we can try and guess something of what she went through, something of what happened to her. I think St Luke, in the way he presents her, wants us to do this. And what strikes me again is how, moment by moment, scene by scene, everything in Mary is, so to speak, brought out by Christ, how her whole being rises up and becomes focussed and energised by him. It’s the earth opening up in the face of heaven coming close.
Think back nine months to the annunciation. Here she is, a simple Jewish girl from an obscure village, going about her daily work. And suddenly she’s greeted, fulsomely, by an angel. ‘Deeply disturbed, says St Luke, she asked herself what this greeting might mean.’ She’s already affected. He delivers his extraordinary message: she’ll be the mother of the Messiah himself. Now her common sense asserts itself: ‘How is this possible if I’m a virgin?’ He explains that a man won’t be the cause but the Spirit of God – more extraordinary still. He assures her ‘nothing is impossible with God’. And now the hidden grace in her speaks up. She gives her full consent to God’s bewildering project and her own part in it. And she does indeed conceive by the Holy Spirit and become the Mother of God.
Think of this as an experience. Here’s a human being, Mary, meeting the divine, and everything in her is involved, engaged, brought into play. Her femininity, the intimate parts of her body, all her chemistry, her emotions, her reason, her will, the hopes she shared with her people, her marriage-to-be with Joseph – it’s all affected, touched, sparked. All of it wells up to meet the coming Christ.
Then go on through the Gospel. She visits Elizabeth. She wants to share her experience. She wants to help someone else caught up in the same story. And here still more emerges. When Elizabeth praises her she bursts out in praise of God. Her joy overflows. She sings the Magnificat. It’s more of the human! Then she has her baby. She cuddles him, breast-feeds him, keeps him warm and dry, tickles him, rubs noses with him, makes funny noises back at him. She sings to him. There’s a lovely carol I heard an Infant weeping. It has Mary singing a lullaby:
My Lamb, from God forth-faring,
My Life, my guiding Star,
Fair Lily, of my bearing,
Than jewel rarer far:
Babe Jesu, lullaby!
Whatever, she was the real mother of a real baby. Then the shepherds come, and there are more strange angelic words to take on board.
These are just glimpses, flashes of what the Incarnation, the coming of Christ, meant for one human being, his mother. Enough of a flash I think to see that everything in her was affected. Every violin-string of her nature plucked and called upon to play. All her threefold potential – as a human being, a woman, a unique individual, as body, soul and spirit – elicited. And in time, not least, her capacity to suffer. She’d meet Simeon and Anna, hear that her son would be a sign of contradiction, and a sword pierce her heart. And indeed she’d have a three-day agony losing her boy in Jerusalem, she’d have the ultimate horror of watching him die on a cross. What was left of herself then? There’s nothing in Mary, no corner of her, no aspect of her humanness, that wasn’t taken up by Christ, emptied out and filled with Christ, given to Christ and the things of Christ. There was nothing in her outside her mission to be the Mother of God, and the Mother of the Church, the mystical Body of her Son. And there’s nothing in her now, assumed as she is body and soul into heaven, outside his joy. It floods her. ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’ ‘My Lamb, my Life, my Guiding Star, fair Lily of my bearing!’ My pearl of great price. My treasure hidden in the field. My Jesus.
And Mary’s song, Mary’s discovery, Mary’s experience has the potential to be ours as well. Her son, God and man, is the one for whom the humanity of each and all of us has been waiting and in whom it is brought to birth. He is the One who makes us human, whom we were made and designed from all eternity to know, love, serve and be happy with for ever.
I might object: such passionate intensity is beyond me. Mary after all had a direct contact with Jesus, whereas my life, my body and soul, my emotions and thoughts and desires are all tied up, yes, in part with church and religion, but with other things as well: with family, with work, with friends, with worries over health and money and all the rest. But say that and we’ve missed the point. The point is, there is only one divine plan and it’s for all of us. It’s to bring together everything and everyone into Christ. This beloved baby body Mary holds in her hands is growing day by day into the mystical Body of the one same Christ. And all the people with whom our lives and emotions and thoughts are tied up are, potentially or actually, part of this body. So it is the same for us. Christ is everywhere and in everyone. He meets us in everyone and everything. And our whole life too, like Mary’s, every nook and cranny of it, can, through the grace of the Eucharist and the power of the Spirit, be turned to him, engaged by him, taken hold of by him – through others for the most part. Our humanity too, as we live with and for each other, can be born and suffer and die and rise. Through him, with him, in him, it can realise its capacity for love. And this is what living really is.
When a Benedictine makes profession, he or she sings a Psalm-verse: ‘Receive me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. And you will not disappoint me of my hope.’ ‘Receive me. Lord, according to your word, and I shall live.’ Today’s Collect calls Mary’s son the Author of Life, its well-spring, its source. Let us, as this year beings, ask him to receive us – everything we have and are. Then we will live, as Mary did, as Mary does!