Jesus had a mother. This is what Christmas is all about, how the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might behold His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father. If there was ever any doubt or confusion about this, then the annual celebration of Christmas will set things straight.
Consider the songs we sing –
Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin, mother and child…
For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
When Mary birthed Jesus, ’twas in a cow’s stall
with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all…
What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
…Haste, haste to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.
It’s been called the “obstetrics of salvation,” God’s plan right from the very start to rescue us by the birth of a baby who was going to come into the world in the usual way.
We are first introduced to this thought in Genesis 3:15, in a verse that the church calls the “Protoevangelion” in Latin – the “first Gospel.” The Lord God says to the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” This is why statues of Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms that you see in Catholic churches often have her standing on a snake. It’s because her seed, Jesus, will “bruise” the serpent’s head. When the Apostle Paul told his young protégé in ministry Timothy that women would be saved or “preserved” through childbearing (I Timothy 2:15), many interpreters see a reference to this Genesis 3:15 promise at work, how “in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).
Mary as the Second Eve reverses the trajectory of disobedience, despair and death that we find ourselves on as human beings. And if taken seriously, then this means that Biblically Mary had a pretty important role to play in unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation, something that we who are Protestant Christians have been generally reluctant to admit. Biblically, we just “haven’t given Mary her due” a Protestant of the stature of Billy Graham once said! And a good place for us to recover a Biblical estimation of Mary are in the greetings that she received in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
The angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:28-31)
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:39-43)
Except for the very last petition, the Biblical “building blocks” of the traditional Catholic devotional ascription, the “Hail Mary,” are all here.
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee (Luke 1:28).
Blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:42),
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (Luke 1:31).
Holy Mary, Mother of God (Luke 1:43 – “the mother of my Lord”),
pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Amen.
As a Biblical summary of the role that Mary played in the drama of our redemption, 80% of the “Hail Mary” is something that I imagine any Protestant Christian who is taking Scripture seriously ought to be able to affirm quite easily. Mary is not our Savior, but she was His mother, and that’s not nothing! The wildly popular contemporary Christmas Carol “Mary Did You Know” seems to me to strike exactly the right balance and precisely stake out the proper perspective on Mary when it asks its series of questions –
Mary did you know that your baby boy will someday walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
That this child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And that when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God?
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
That this sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am?
And I find this same approach to Mary at work in some of the standard templates for Mary in Eastern Orthodox iconography.
There is a category of Mary icons known as the “Virgin of Hodegetria” icons. Some of the oldest and most famous icons of Mary that we have are of this type. “Hodegetria” is a Greek word that means “The Guide” or “She who points the way.” In “Hodegetria” icons Mary is shown holding her infant Son in the crook of her left arm while with her right hand gesturing in His direction while looking us straight in the eye as if to say “Here He is.” Our attention in this icon is not drawn to Mary but to her Son. As John the Baptist explained of Jesus, “I must decrease, He must increase” (John 3:30), so this icon of Mary presents her making the same point. It’s not about her; it’s about her Son.
Another standard category of Mary icons in Orthodoxy are known as the “Virgin of Eleousa” icons. “Eleousa” is the Greek word for “Tenderness” or “Mercy.” In “Eleousa” icons Mary holds her infant Son close to her, often cheek to cheek as an indication of intimacy and affection. Instead of looking at us as in the “Hodegetria” icon, in the “Eleousa” icon Mary is usually looking at her Son in rapt devotion. She has gathered Him up into her arms and holds Him in the closest of ways. It is a sign of motherly love. Luke tells us on more than one occasion that Mary treasured her experiences with her baby boy and “pondered” their meaning in her heart (Luke 2:19; 51), and the “Eleousa” icon is the perfect picture of this.
My personal favorite Mary icon is a combination of the “Hodegetria” and the “Eleousa” icons. Known in the West as the icon of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” in the Eastern Church it is known as the icon of the “Theotokos of the Passion” “Theotokos” is the Greek title given to Mary based on Luke 1:43 – “the mother of the Lord.” In this icon Jesus has been gathered up into Mary’s arms and she holds his hands while He looks back over His shoulder at angels who are holding the instruments with which He will be crucified. Their appearance has so startled Him that one of the sandals on his feet has come undone in His haste to get to His mother’s arms. And as she comforts Him, she looks at us just to make sure that we understand the importance of what’s taking place, her Son will die for you.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, in one of his Christmas sermons advised his listeners to observe the birth of Christ just as we see it happening in mothers with their babies all around us! By portraying experiences and emotions that mothers everywhere have with their babies – tenderness, pride, concern and care – the Orthodox icons of Mary provide us with access into the great mystery of the Incarnation that Christmas proclaims. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, had a mother, and because we do too, His identification with us is complete. When you strip away all of the bright decorations; when you get behind all of the lovely traditions; when you discard all that is shallow and artificial about the season; what is left of Christmas is a little baby gathered up in his mother’s arms, and “nowhere is it more clearly visible than in Christ’s humble birth in that stable… that we have a God who is for us, a God who is really on our side” (Hans Kung). He is “Emmanuel,” the “God who is with us.” DBS+