Call of Mary

A few years ago, there was a fascinating exhibition at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It was by a Polish man called Miroslav Bakla and what he had constructed was essentially an enormous black box of darkness into which you walk. You can imagine in in the Turbine Hall area. As you walk into this black space you found yourself entering the unknown. The experience of doing so was extraordinary. Because you were faced with this huge black mysterious chasm. When I first saw it, I was really taken aback. And as I tentatively walked in, it evoked a whole range of emotions… feelings of apprehension, fear, excitement, intrigue, as I entered into the great black unknown.

On this fourth and last Sunday of Advent we focus our attention upon Mary, and I imagine this young teenage girl experienced some of those feelings - apprehension, fear, excitement, intrigue.

Often on our carol service sheets or Christmas cards, there are portrayals of the annunciation. Many include Mary, the angel, and, perhaps, an inscribed scroll, a dove, or a beam of light pointing to Mary’s head — in fact, to her ear.

The broadcaster and priest, Angela Tilby, provides some background to this. She describes how the idea that Mary conceived Jesus through the ear has an ancient Christian pedigree. It was suggested in the fourth century by Athanasius, and taken up by Ephrem the Syrian: “Through her ear the Word of the divine Father entered and dwelt secretly in her womb.”

We may well find this rather bizarre, and understandably tempted to dismiss the notion as an example of early Christian squeam­ishness about sex and female bodies.

However, the background to this notion is more theologically nuanced. The early Church Fathers were familiar with stories from Greek mythology. Such as Zeus impregnating pretty girls who subsequently gave birth to semi-divine figures, such as Hercules. The early church fathers were determined to distinguish Christian faith in the incarnation from any suggestion that God was involved biologically in Christ’s conception.

So, following Luke’s insistence that Mary would conceive by the Holy Spirit, they taught that the mode of Christ’s conception was simply ineffable: it was beyond human comprehension. Mary’s ear, then, simply represents Mary’s consent to God. She listened and obeyed, and, from that listening and obedience, the Word was made flesh.

Medieval writers went further. They suggested that, just as Eve had given her ear to the words of the serpent, Mary overturned the serpent’s curse by listening to God’s Word and conceiving the Word within her body. Hence the theological pun: Eva’s disobedience was reversed by the angel’s Ave to Mary.

I find this background helpful because I am often asked what I think about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. And at this time of year there are often various Christian voices expressing doubts about the doctrine. When we say in the creed, “He came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…” we’re not saying what many seem to assume: that God somehow had sex with Mary and produced a Jesus who was half human and half divine.

Doctrinal statements like we find in the creed are forged after much prayerful and exacting deliberation. After many decades of deliberation, the early church fathers were convinced that Christ is no hybrid — he is both fully God and fully human. The point being made here is subtle and profound: Christ is not the result of any human will or act, only of God’s will and Mary’s consent: a virgin birth. That’s why I not only reject the idea that God somehow had sex with Mary, but I am reluctant to go along with my common sense tendency and to assume that Jesus was conceived as the result of normal human intercourse.

This is a style of theology the Eastern Orthodox church can help us rational Western Christians who are always tending to want to pin down, explain away, dissect, analyse. Often that’s important and helpful. But sometimes we need to move beyond the ‘lust for certainty’, to embrace the fact that are approaching a divine mystery.

Christmas forces us to suspend judgement, to let the mystery be. Meanwhile, the challenge is not to attempt to dissolve the mystery by speculating about how Jesus obtained a Y chromosome, but to emulate Mary: to hear the word of God, and let God bring Christ to birth within our lives.

The story our gospel writer Luke weaves together provide accounts that vibrate with the personal hopes and fears of ordinary people. Real people, like Mary and Joseph, who hesitate between faith and doubt, who are called to trust God in significant moments in history, as well as profound personal moments in life.

As a nation we are facing a very significant year. Like Mary, we might feel as though we are walking into the unknown: apprehensive, excited, fearful. On a personal level, there may be other things going on in our lives as we face Christmas and the coming year, things that bring a mixture of thoughts and emotions.

Today I want to encourage you that whatever we face, whatever you face in the coming year, to have hope. Hope in the knowledge that that God will be with us whatever we face. And the same divine energy at work 2000 years ago, bringing a spiritual revolution, is also at work within us here today.

Angela Tilby, ‘Letting the Virgin-birth mystery be’, Church Times, 21
December 2017