What a remarkable woman. She was a bride already during her teen years. Exactly when the marriage had been covenanted is uncertain, but she was reckoned as a wife. Her husband was an older man, and he was still waiting (for what? maturity?) before taking her to him. Though husband and wife, they had never lived together, nor ever slept together. She was still a virgin bride.
Her husband was a son of kings. She could trace her own family line back to the greatest of the kings of her people. Centuries had passed, however, since any of that king’s lineage had worn the crown. A curse had been uttered over one of her husband’s ancestors, and every son of the lawful bloodline was barred from the throne.
She was of a different line. She and her husband shared that common ancestor—the great king—but for nearly a thousand years their fathers had built separate houses. Only her husband’s house could lawfully rule the kingdom. And the sons of that house were cursed.
So here she was, a daughter of a king, betrothed to the son of kings, but living in a backwater of a conquered nation. She exercised none of the prerogatives of royalty, nor did she expect that she ever would. Her husband—this son of kings—was a carpenter, a builder by trade.
Could anything have been further from her mind than an angelic visitation? Yet there he was, an ancient and dreadful presence, greeting her, saying that she was “highly favored” (filled to the bursting-point with God’s grace), and pronouncing her “blessed among women.” No wonder she paled and trembled.
Yet the appalling magnificence brought astounding news. She had found grace in the eyes of God, he said. She was about to conceive and give birth to a son who would be a most unusual person. He would be called the son of the Most High. He would be given the throne of the great king. He would rule over the nation, once chosen but now conquered. Furthermore, His kingdom would never end.
So much of this announcement was implausible that it was difficult even to know where to begin. Perhaps the question that she asked was the most obvious. How could a girl who was still a maiden—a virgin-child-bride—conceive a son? She was not so naïve as to be ignorant of how babies were produced.
The dreadful eminence offered an answer that really explained very little. The Holy Spirit would come upon her. The power of the Most High would overshadow her. Her child would be called holy, the Son of God. With God, nothing is impossible.
These words contained little explanation. What they made clear, however, is that a miracle would be required. Producing that miracle would be God’s business, not hers. Her implied choice was either to permit the miracle or not.
She could have no illusions about the consequences if she said yes. Everybody knew where babies came from. Her husband would assume that she had been unfaithful (and he did). Other people would assume the same, or else they would be scandalized that she and her husband had commenced cohabitation without the customary public rites. In either case, she could expect public shame.
To say yes took enormous courage. It also took enormous faith. Yet she had been filled to bursting with God’s grace. She was blessed among women, as her own cousin soon affirmed. At that time, she herself would claim that “all generations will call me blessed.”
What would she choose? God must have been preparing her for this moment for her entire life. Her mind was full of Scripture, and she had the soul of a poet. She could grasp unseen possibilities. In that moment, she believed that the Lord would do as He had said. She replied, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
As the weeks passed, it became obvious that she had indeed conceived. Her husband was on the verge of initiating a divorce when he received his own angelic visitation. Immediately he took her into his home, though he was careful to preserve her virginity. His act effectively claimed the unborn child as his own. This remarkable situation would give the child all the rights of the king’s house—but it would also exempt him from the ancestral curse. Amazingly, the child would inherit the bloodline of the great king from his mother, while he received the rights of the royal house from his (adoptive is too mild a word) father.
At the moment, however, the adoptive father and the mother who was great with child were still subjects of a conquering, foreign power. That power demanded that they leave the comforts of their home for the city of their common ancestor, the great king. So leave they did.
They arrived in the city of David to find it brimming with travelers. No lodging could be found at any price. Finally, they had to content themselves with a rough-hewn manger.
Of all the nights! She lay on hard stones, cushioned whatever garments or straw her husband could find. She had no mother to hold her hand, no sister, no kindly aunt. Only a husband with whom she had never shared a bed.
The pains came, then again, harder and faster. Her breath caught. Tears flowed as flesh tore.
She held the tiny thing in her arms. Fragile fingers clasped hers as she cleansed the wrinkled skin. Did she guess what those tiny hands would do—healing the sick, mixing the clay and giving sight to the blind, rescuing Peter from the heaving sea, bearing the nails of the cross? Her work completed for the moment, she wrapped the babe in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger.
He was her son, as truly and utterly as any son was born of any mother. Yet he was also the Son of God, God the Son, the eternal second person of the Godhead. He was one person in two natures, both divine and human, but only one Jesus Christ.
The bearing of this son placed her in a category of her own. She became something that no other woman ever did or ever can. She gave birth, not to a nature, but to a son, a person. Her son was the God-man. Therefore, she and she alone is and will ever be theotokos, “God-bearer.”
We do not worship her, for God alone deserves our adoration. Yet she was and is highly favored—filled to bursting with God’s grace. God Himself has pronounced her blessed. Dare we do less?
How should she be called? Not redemptrix, to be sure, nor mediatrix. What about the handmaid of the Lord? The blessed virgin? The mother of God? Dare we deny her these rightful titles?
We marvel at God’s grace in the life of Mary. As we ponder the incarnation of our Lord, we rejoice with Mary’s joy. We do not understand the mystery of the incarnation—indeed, we marvel at it. We worship her son, just as the shepherds did on the night of His birth. As for Mary herself—well, what a remarkable woman.
A Christmas Carol
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cockcrow
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His Hands had made
Born a Stranger.
Priest and King lay fast asleep
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem:
Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass,
Kept a watch together,
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.
Jesus on His Mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless Lamb of God was He,
Shepherd of the Fold:
Let us kneel with Mary Maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass,
To hail the King of Glory.