The simplest fact of the Christmas story is that Jesus had a mother. Mary is the guarantee of the true humanity of Jesus Christ. That Jesus had a mother indicates that he doesn’t merely resemble us; he is the same as us.
In the Creed Jesus’ human life is bracketed by two people: “He was born of the Virgin Mary, and he suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
“Born of the Virgin Mary.” Jesus begins his life, as we all do, with his mother. I was born in the former Women’s Hospital in New York City, now part of the great St Luke’s complex. The tired Floyd family joke was that as a male I came to be born in a women’s hospital, “because I wanted to be with my mother.”
But if in his human nature he is just the same as us, he is at the same time truly divine, and this is where the paradox of the virgin birth helps communicate the mystery of the incarnation. Mary herself carries some of the paradoxes of the story. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan calls her “Our Lady of the Paradoxes: Virgin but Mother, Human Mother but Mother of God.”
The title for Mary, “Mother of God,” comes from the story of the Visitation in Luke, which many Christians will be hearing this week in the Gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It is her cousin Elizabeth who is the first person to recognize Mary’s unique role in the drama of salvation. She says, “Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
As the Mother of God, or the “God bearer,” as the Eastern Orthodox put it, Mary is instrumental to the story. An ordinary humble young women who find herself in an extraordinary situation, Mary, like John the Baptist, points beyond herself to Christ. Since her role is to insure the humanity of Jesus, all attempts to turn her into something more than a human mother undermine her proper place in the story. It is helpful to keep in mind St. Ambrose’s dictum, that “Mary was the temple of God, not the God of the Temple.”