In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my thoughts frequently drift toward Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are a number of Marian feasts that take place during the month of December, and Christmas Day was the day that Mary became a mother. I think of how special the birth of a child is, not so much for the child but for the new parents. Do any of us remember the day we were born? Not likely. But how many of us remember the day we held a new baby in our arms, especially the day it was born? When I was serving as a hospital chaplain, and I was having a hard day, I frequently made my way over to the Family Birth Place wing, where I could see new parents interact with their babies. I could be assured of a smile on my face. From time to time, parents would invite me to hold their newborn babies. I was the first grandparent to hold our grandson when he was born nearly five years ago. A very good friend of mine invited me to attend the birth of her daughter a number of years back, and I was her first non-relative to hold her. And when my newborn niece was baptized five years ago in a Roman Catholic parish, the presiding Roman Catholic priest welcomed me to participate fully in the liturgy and he yielded to me and invited me to actually baptize her. None of these infants remember the interactions I’m discussing. But I do! And they are meaningful moments in my life. We don’t remember our infancy, but we remember the infants in our lives.
If we follow the threads of this premise, then the first Christmas wasn’t really about Jesus. Sure, subsequent Christmases were celebrations of Jesus’s birthday, and we all love to celebrate our birthdays! But we don’t remember the actual day of our births. Those days aren’t about us. They’re about the people who love us. Think about it. When you’ve visited the hospital after the birth of a loved one, did you offer you congratulations to the newborn baby? Or did you offer those congratulations to the baby’s parents and family? I’m guessing it’s the second. Aside from Baby Herman on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, I’ve never seen a baby smoking a celebratory cigar. I have, however, seen lots of happy new parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members enjoying them. The joy in a birth is experienced not by the baby, but by the family. Christmas isn’t for Jesus. It’s for us. And that very first Christmas, it was for Mary.
Picture Mary, a young woman, traveling the desert a week before her due date. At this time of year, some 2022 years ago, she was on her way to Bethlehem. Was she travelling on a donkey? Was she walking? What was she wearing on her feet? Was her mobility compromised? Was she experiencing labor pains? Was she craving foods with interesting flavor profiles? Was she excited for her new child? Was she scared about the prospect of being a new parent? Was the nursery painted? Were family members arriving to help her get used to the early days of motherhood? We don’t really know, but we can imagine.
During December, many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This feast celebrates Mary as having been conceived without original sin, so as to be prepared to be the mother of the Son of God. During December, we also celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe was an apparition of Mary to Juan Diego, a peasant in what is now Mexico. In the month of May, we celebrate Our Lady of Fatima, a Marian apparition to three children in Portugal. In February, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Marian apparition to a child who would later become known as St. Bernadette, in France. And of course, our very own Anglican Communion celebrates the apparition known as Our Lady of Walsingham, who appeared to Richeldis de Faverches in England. Why do we celebrate Mary in so many different expressions? Because she is important to us! She is the theotokos (Greek for “godbearer”), the mother of God, the physical fully-human bridge between divinity and humanity. Her son, Jesus, is of course the bridge who is both fully human and fully divine. In Mary’s lifetime, she was physically closer to the Divine than any other person in history.
If you come to visit me in my office, you’ll notice I have visible displays of my own Marian devotions. I have rosaries, a Marian icon, a vile of water from Lourdes, and a graduate degree with her name on it (a few lines above my own!). I wear a ring on my right ring finger with her monogram and a tiny image of her. Of course, you are not required to share my devotion to the Blessed Mother. But I think wherever we find ourselves on the Mariology scale, we can agree that she was an important person in the story of our salvation.
When we think liturgically, we don’t think of events as taking place in the past or the future. Our liturgy transcends space and time. This means that when St. Paul’s Cathedral in London celebrates Christmas Eve services at 11:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, we are celebrating liturgically at exactly the same time with Christians in London, even though our service begins at 9 p.m. here and the Mountain Time Zone is several hours behind GMT. It also means that when we celebrate Christmas, we’re not celebrating Jesus’s 2022nd birthday. We’re transporting ourselves back to that place and that time when his birth took place. When we celebrate Christmas, it is a celebration for us and for his mother. We celebrate that he came to the world to live among us. And we celebrate with that young woman who just became a new mother. We hold space for Mary in her joys and fears, and we can offer her a token of our thanks for doing such a fine job of loving, caring for, and raising the boy who would grow up to become the man who would take away our sins. Christmas isn’t for Jesus. It’s for us. Let us all take some time in these coming days to reflect on that maiden as she prepares to give birth. And let us all take some time to reflect on the mystery of the incarnation, though which God shares his divinity with us, his beloved people. Mother Mary, pray for us.