Obviously, the central figure in the Nativity story is Christ Himself, the Logos of God become incarnate as a human being. The next most central figure is the Virgin Mary. Tradition teaches us that the Virgin Mary was born to elderly parents, Ioachim and Anna, who had faith to believe that God would grant them a child in old age. She was chosen by God before her birth for this specific role of carrying the Son of God in her womb and allowing Him to enter the creation as a new-born babe. She was raised in the temple from the age of two or three, and then when she came out of the temple around age fourteen, almost immediately she was betrothed to Joseph, and then visited by the Archangel Gabriel, and asked to be part of the God’s plan for our salvation.
Even though God had this plan for salvation, and called Mary to a very specific and most important role in it, her participation was voluntary and not coerced. God, through the angel, asked, and Mary responded “Yes!” Her yes to God’s call did not mean she would have an easy life. First, there would be some things that would be hard to explain—a woman pregnant outside of marriage would have been scorned by society two thousand years ago. How would Joseph take the news? By this time both of Mary’s parents had died. What if Joseph left, and left her all alone, to be a single mom? We know that Joseph was an older man, and before Jesus reached the age of 30, that Joseph had died. (We know that Joseph is present when Jesus is 12, but he is not mentioned when Jesus begins His ministry at age 30.)
Mary not only watched her Son grow up and succeed, unfortunately she also saw Him forsaken, betrayed, ignored, tortured and ultimately killed in the most violent way. She had to say goodbye to Him at the Ascension. But later she became one of the early leaders in the Christian Church.
In the icon of the Nativity, Mary sits next to the baby Jesus, (who symbolically is depicted in what looks like a tomb, rather than a manger, representing His purpose for coming to earth was to die for our sins) looking out towards the world. Mary is the par excellence example of what a human being is supposed to be—to love God, to be obedient to God, and to serve God.
Because of the Virgin Mary, two things are possible. First, our salvation. God needed someone to bear His Son, so her “yes” makes our salvation possible. Second, through her example, we see that one can carry Christ inside of us. This is something that we do through Holy Communion. The physical Christ comes to reside in each of us, and rather than eviscerating us (which is what should happen when the sinful human being comes in contact with the Living God), He strengthens us.
The Virgin Mary carries the title “Theotokos,” which means “God bearer.” We are called to do the same—to carry Christ in us, and to nurture our relationship with Him. The Virgin Mary consented to play a very specific, unique and important role in God’s plan for salvation. While our roles in God’s plan won’t take us to a cave in Bethlehem, we each also are called to specific, unique and important roles in God’s plan for salvation. Our roles may not seem important to us, but every role we are called to play is important. Because by everyone embracing our roles, all bases are covered, all roles are filled, and everything stays in balance. God’s plan comes to pass when we each do our part in it. However, God doesn’t impose his call on us. He calls us, but waits for us to answer the call, just as the Virgin Mary embraced hers.
Like the Virgin Mary, we are called to embrace our role with humility and as a servant. The response of the Virgin Mary to the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel was to say “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) This should be our response to whatever God calls us to as well.
Today’s verse from the Nativity story reminds us that Mary pondered on all of these things in her heart. She didn’t necessarily have answers or understanding. There were times she certainly did not have joy. But she kept Christ centre in her heart. She thought about Him. She kept Him in the centre of her life.
We will not always have answers about God’s plans or our roles in them. Many times we will ponder questions in our hearts. We may even have confusion and doubt. We are supposed to keep all of it, the things we understand and the things we don’t, in our hearts. We are supposed to keep Christ centre in our hearts. And we should ponder, think on, Christ every day.
Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, as we tell about this mystery. The middle wall of separation has been broken down; the fiery sword has turned back, the Cherubim permits access to the tree of life; and I partake of the delight of Paradise, from which I was cast out because of disobedience. For the exact Image of the Father, the express Image of His eternity, takes the form of a serv-ant, coming forth from a Virgin Mother; and He undergoes no change. He remained what He was, true God; and He took up what He was not, becoming human in His love for humanity. Let us cry out to Him: “You who were born from a Virgin, O God, have mercy on us.”(Stichera, Vespers of the Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
The lessons of the Virgin Mary: We are called to play a role in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Every role has some joy and some sorrow. We will all have doubts at times. This is why it is critical to continually carry Christ in our hearts and to ponder on the things of God. The Virgin Mary shows the greatest example of what it means to serve. As the first person to carry Christ inside of her, she opens the door for each of us to do the same.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Tampa, FL, Greek Orthodox of America