Gerald Bray writes of the incarnation and the atonement and sees them focussed in the vocation of the Mother of God.
THE OTHER DAY I was taking my Latin class through he opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel – an interesting exercise, because it revealed how certain aspects of the Nativity story, so familiar to us in general outline, escape our minds when we do not concentrate on every word. One of the verses which surprised my class was 2: 35, a part of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary. Speaking of the future life and death of Jesus, Simeon adds by way of parenthesis: ‘And a sword shall pierce your soul also’.
The Catholic tradition as long paid special honour to Mary, but it is noticeable how the emphasis, at least in modern times, has fallen on the solemn bits – she is venerated as the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of the Church, and so on. The mater dolorosa aspect has not been totally eclipsed, but in many places it has tended to fade into the background. Whether we respond to the adulation bestowed on her or recoil from it, we still seem to find it hard to enter into ant very deep understanding of her suffering.
Yet it can be argued that Mary’s real glory, the thing which sets her for ever apart from any other human being, is precisely this – that a sword pierced her soul as she surrendered her Son, so that he might die for the salvation of the world. In recent years, the terrible uniqueness of that event has been captured more powerfully than anywhere else in the Requiem of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed, His disciple stone-faced stared, His mother stood apart. No other looked Into her secret eyes, No one dared’.
Coming as it did out of the terrible experience of seeing her own son jailed in one of Stalin’s prisons, Akhmatova’s passion reminds us of Mary’s particular grandeur. Even as she cuddled the Babe in her arms. Mary learned the awful truth about the one she was carrying, and about what that would mean for her also. At her greatest moment of joy, her mind was seared with the warning of future pain, as she was told that she would be expected to sacrifice her first born so that he sins of the world might be forgiven.
The message of he incarnation of Christ is one of joy, but it is a far cry from the artificial cheeriness which so often greets us at (or especially after) Church these days. Those who live in a world where coffee and biscuits have become the Body and Blood of our fellowship cannot look into the eyes of Mary any more than Akhmatova’s onlookers could.
Sadly all too often there is as little room for her now in Church as there was in the inn at Bethlehem so many centuries ago. We have heard a great deal about ‘pain’ in the past few years, of course, not least the pain of women complaining that they could not be ordained. Once that was out of the way, it was the turn of some men to call attention to their pain as they took themselves out of their ministry because women had been ordained to the same orders as theirs.
Whatever sympathy we may have for people like these, I think we have to admit that their pain is a far cry from that of the Virgin Mary. She was not complaining because nobody offered her a bishopric; her suffering was directed not at herself, but at the terrible fate awaiting Another – the very Son of God whom she had been given to carry in her womb.
The terrible truth is that Christ came into the world to suffer and to die. Those who are closest to him will feel his grief most deeply, for it was his demand that we should deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16: 24). Surrounded as we so often are by roast turkey and Christmas pudding, self-denial is a hard thing for us to remember as the holiday season approaches. But self-denial is the very essence of the Christian faith. It is the prime motive of the incarnation itself: ‘He who thought it not robbery to be counted equal with God, emptied himself taking the form of a servant…’ (Phil. 2: 6-7)
What this means in practice will be different for each one of us, but the fundamental principle will be the same. Our lives are not our own – they were bought with a price (I Cor. 6: 20) and that price is none less than the precious blood of Jesus Christ himself – blood which he was given in the womb of His mother Mary. Without her obedience there would have been no sacrifice.
No doubt God would have found another way to save us, but within the framework of the Biblical story, it was Mary’s submission which made our Saviour’s life – and therefore also his death – possible in the first place.
God does not call us to bear Christ in our womb as Mary did, but He does expect us to carry Him in our heart by faith. The Christ we bear in that secret place is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but he is also the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world. His crown is a crown of thorns, an if he is present in our lives then there will be no way that we shall escape the sword that pierced His side.
To live the incarnation of Christ is to share his pain for the lost world He came to redeem. It is not to complain of our own failures or to agitate for improvements in our own lives, but to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to Him, which is our reasonable service (Rom. 12: 1-2).
As we share together in the rejoicing at the time of our Saviour’s birth, may we remember what that coming to the world meant, and what it still means to those of us who are called to follow Him. There can be no greater joy and no greater peace than knowing that we are indeed walking in His way, carrying His cross now so that one day we may wear His crown.
Gerald Bray is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Samford University, USA.