Readings: Numbers 6:17-22; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21
I don’t think it’s unusual for people of our age to have grown up with some fantastic associations with Mary and devotion to her. There were schedules of Marian prayers believed to insure a death accompanied by a priest and the final sacraments, as there were titles and prerogatives that may have surprised the young mother in Nazareth.
Our ancestors certainly outdid us: through the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries the scholars of the great cathedral schools of Chartres, Beauvais and Paris debated whether Mary had infused knowledge of the seven liberal arts. The consensus was that she did, which would have been very useful when she helped Jesus with his homework had he only gone to that sort of school, which, of course, he hadn’t.
If Mary seemed to have been described as a goddess in the most exaggerated forms of such piety, that was not–is not!–unlike what men may ascribe to any woman or mother. Ask a psychologist about the imagery of clients’ dreams and associations when they describe their relation to their mothers. The mythic, numinous and fantastical attach themselves to Mary because she is a woman and a mother being described by men.
But men can talk or write quite differently about Mary–in the Gospels for example. Granted, St. Like describes a scene in today’s Gospel that is out of the ordinary; but it is also very ordinary. It is not usual to be born in a stable but it does happen, especially if you’re poor. It’s certainly not usual for shepherds to visit a newborn, looking at the infant as a sign from God. But doesn’t something like this still happen? Don’t you know parents who sense God’s presence through their newborn child as they wonder at the new life with awe? Our human experience is both out of the ordinary and very ordinary. And so it was with Mary who, like us, does not understand but kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. St. Luke mentions that more than once to make his point: however extraordinary Mary was, she is still as ordinary as any of us. If she weren’t, how could her Son take to his divinity any true humanity?
If I think of Mary as the exemplar of faithful discipleship, I am heartened that she still learned the hard way, still had to persevere in her trust of God despite appearances. Not only do she and I share common ground in our doubts, our fears, our disorientation, but she has passed all that on to her Son. Jesus of Nazareth is as much my brother as my Lord and Savior. He would care for my fragility, he could relate to my experience, he should be right there, not only as a model but as my companion, the one who shares the same bread of tears and ignorance as well as the bread of his own body and divinity. This balance between our shared experience and his Lordship is delicate.
An Orthodox chant for the Christmas Eucharist describes that balance on a cosmic scale. When the eternal and unbounded Word of God comes to us to be circumscribed by human limitations, all of creation contributes to his welcome. The angelic choirs sing him a throne of glory in heaven and of peace on earth. The heavens donate a star to guide people of good will to him; the animal kingdom provides an ox and an ass to warm him with their breath. The earth herself offers a cave to shelter the Word. And what of the human race, that most puny and vacillating part of creation, what has the human race to offer?
We, the chant says, offer Mary to receive and generate, to nourish that divine Word become flesh. She is the best we have to offer, a reminder that, despite out infidelities and betrayals, we are also capable of a new beginning; of a pure, unmixed response, a fertile receptivity; of the deepest engagement and trust. Like Mary, we could be ordinary and anything but ordinary. We could–as we are called to be!–we could make the ordinary transparent to allow the Divine to illuminate the ordinary. We could bring the Son of God to birth.