Sermon from December 14th, 2014. The Text for this week’s sermon is Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Magnificat.
Mary the God-Bearer
There is an ancient title for Mary that perhaps holds more truth than any of her others. In antiquity she was referred to as the Theotokos, which means God-bearer. Because she is the one who bore God into the world. Mary carried him for nine months while people whispered about who his father was behind her back. And Mary pushed him out, in mud and straw and with no one but Joseph and livestock to give her comfort. The child born in mud and earth was none other than the light of the world, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. When God became human, God chose Mary to be the one to bear Christ into the world. So Christians would later call Mary the God-bearer, for she is the one who bore God into the world on the day we call Christmas.
But Mary’s bearing is hardly done on Christmas morning. Mary bears it when Jesus is lost for three days, and when they finally find him in the Temple, he tells her, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be where I belong?” Mary bears it when she comes to see her son at a house and he leaves her standing outside. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he said. “Here are my mother and my brothers,” talking about the people inside. Mary stood outside and bore it.
And Mary bears it when her son is taken, first to Caiaphas, and Herod, and then Pilate. She bears it when the crowds shout Barrabas’s name instead of his. And while Jesus bears the heavy cross on his way to Golgotha, Mary bears her heavy heart down the same path. She knows the excruciating pain of a parent burying a child. And on Sunday morning, she goes to the tomb bearing linen and spices, so that like she did when he was born, she can hold his body in her arms and wrap him in cloth, before giving his body back to the earth.
There’s an old war poet named G.A. Studdert Kennedy. He was a chaplain, an English priest and one of the few people doing theology from the front lines. He even won the Military Cross for valor in rushing into danger to pull wounded men from the front lines. One of his poems is called, “I Know Not Where They Have Laid Him.” It’s written from the perspective of a mother who has received the news that her son has died on some far-away battle line, and she wonders what will happen to his body. She reflects on the pain it took to bring him into the world, and the pain it took to keep him there. A mother’s pain, a pain she says her parson can’t understand. She remembers the pain of labor, giving up her own rest in the middle of the night to care for him when he’s sick, giving the life from her breast to feed him and nourish him. It’s a longer poem so I won’t read the whole thing, but I’d like to read a section of it, because I think it might speak to what Mary was going through those last few days:
But I’d like to know just where it’s laid,
That body my body bore,
And I’d like to know who’ll mother him
Out there on that other shore,
Who will be bearin’ the mother’s part
And be makin’ your body boy?
Who will be ‘avin the mother’s pain
And feelin’ the mother’s joy?
Gawd, is it you? Then bow You down
And ‘ark to a mother’s prayer.
Don’t keep it all to yourself Good Lord,
But give ‘is old mother a share.
Gimme a share of the travail pain
Of my own son’s second birth,
Double the pain if you double the joy
That a mother feels on earth.
Gimme the sorrow and not the joy
If that ‘as to be Your will;
Gimme the labour and not the pride,
But make me ‘is mother still.
Maybe the body as ‘e shall wear
Is born of my breaking heart,
Maybe these pains are the new birth pangs
What’ll give my laddie ‘is start.
Then I’d not trouble ‘ow hard they was,
I’d gladly go through the mill,
If that noo body ‘e wore were mine,
And I were ‘is mother still.
She hopes that in his birth to new life she can still be his mother, that she can bear him into the next world as she bore him into the first. She knows the pain, but she knows the joy too, and she’d choose it again, if she had the chance. That’s what it is to be the God-bearer. To bear God into the world as Jesus came is to endure great pain but also to know, as the angel said, “tidings of great joy.” Most highly-favored lady indeed. And perhaps Mary realizes that. That’s why her song is filled with joy but also with upheaval. God will scatter the proud with a mighty arm, and send the rich away empty. But all generations will call her blessed.
The ancient bishop Nestorius didn’t like the term God-bearer for Mary. He felt that it singled her out as someone different from other people. He was concerned that this would lead to too much veneration of Mary. If people put Mary up on a pedestal because she was the one who brought Jesus into the world, they would forget that each of us also bears the image of God just as Mary did.
Each of us is also a God-bearer. Just like Mary, we have been tasked with bringing Jesus into the world. We too share in the travails and the labor, in the joy and the pain, of bringing God into our world. And there may be times when we too find ourselves weeping at Golgotha. But we will also share Mary’s joy. We will experience joy like the joy of a new mother of holding her child in her arms. We too will know that we are birthing something that will change the world. And we too will witness miracles performed in God’s name.
This season we acknowledge that something is born in us. Something that transforms our lives and shapes who we are. Something that will bring tears and pain but also promises to bring tidings of great joy. We bear it with us every where we go. That something is love.
It is the love that a mother has, to endure all to bring a child into the world. It is the love that Mary had, to follow her child all the way from the manger to the cross. It is the love that God has for us, that God sent God’s only begotten Son so that we might have eternal life. That love is born into the world this season. Let it be born again in you. And bear it with you wherever you go.