In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:26–45 NRSV)
Bearing My Own Child
Of all of the roles I have played up to this point in my life, the role of mother is one of my most cherished. I have three children, and I remember very clearly what it was like when I learned I was pregnant with my first child.
Before I continue, let me say I recognize that some of you, for a variety of reasons, are not parents and may not become parents. But I encourage you to stick with me. Regardless of your circumstances, what I have to say may prove valuable.
After about four years of marriage, my husband and I decided it was time to start a family. When that little blue positive sign appeared after several months of waiting, I was at once both ecstatic and completely terrified. “What have we done?” I said to my husband. “Were we crazy to think we were actually ready for this?” But at that point, there was no turning back.
For the next forty-one weeks (yes, our first was a week late), we prepared for the arrival of our bundle of joy. Our new Sunday night ritual throughout this first pregnancy was reading the book Your Pregnancy Week by Week.1 In word and picture, this book describes fetal development at each stage of gestation. We scrutinized the text and prayed that limb buds were appearing as they should, that the heart was developing properly, that my body would continue to accept the intrusion of this foreign body.
During the first twelve weeks, the pregnancy was our secret. However, once we felt confident that all was going as it should, we broke the news to family and friends. When people found out, they immediately began to treat me a little differently, wondering if I had a good doctor, asking if I was eating what I should eat and avoiding what I should not, and questioning my desire to continue my exercise routine. It was a bit much, but I knew it was all out of concern for my well-being and for the baby’s.
Then I began to show. And then I really began to show. I distinctly remember a stranger walking up to me in a store and asking if he could touch my belly. [As an aside, unless you have an especially close relationship with the mother, let me suggest that you refrain from asking to do this.] By the time I was about twenty-four weeks into this pregnancy, I recognized that the person growing inside me was changing me in ways I had never imagined. People I did not even know were responding to me with concern and curiosity. I was no longer Theresa; I was the carrier of this infant who was soon to be born. I was no longer existing for myself. Ahead lay the important tasks of nurturing and safely delivering an infant; of rearing her in a loving, protective, wholesome environment; and of being prepared to make sacrifices so that she might thrive.
The much-anticipated day came: at about 5:30 AM on a hot and humid day in July my first child was born. Exhausted, elated, and scared, I welcomed her and we began to get to know each other face-to-face. Since that day, I have continued to be amazed, overwhelmed, challenged, and made better by my daughter. The moment my husband and I made the choice to become parents, I accepted a call to motherhood that daily redefines and refines me.
Mary Bearing the Christ Child
Which brings me to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Most of us are familiar with her story. She is from the backwater village of Nazareth, in Galilee. No glamour and no sophistication. She is betrothed to Joseph, a young man from her village. Based on what we know about Jewish custom in and around the first century AD, we can presume she is in her teens.
She is a young woman doing what young women her age are expected to do. There seems to be nothing special about her, until the angel Gabriel appears and tells her she has been chosen as the one who will give birth to the Son of the Most High.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30–33 NRSV)
We can imagine that, even before the gravity of that news sinks in, her mind races through the implications of being pregnant: she is betrothed—nearly married but not yet living with her husband. I imagine her talking to herself: “How could I possibly become pregnant? I mean, I do know how this happens, and I can tell you that there is no way! Joseph and I will not consummate this marriage until the wedding ceremony. If I end up pregnant . . . well, I can guarantee you the wedding will be called off. Not to mention what the village will think of me and what they might do to me.”
But then we hear Gabriel again, explaining to Mary in mysterious terms how the Holy Spirit will cause her to become pregnant—how the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and how she will bear the Son of God.
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 NRSV)
And to underscore the divine nature of this event, Gabriel reminds Mary that her middle-aged, barren cousin, Elizabeth, is six months pregnant—because God willed it to be.
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:36–37 NRSV)
This final bit—nothing is impossible with God—appears to persuade Mary. The next words we hear are from her. She says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 NRSV). In that brief exchange with God’s messenger, Mary makes a choice that goes against everything her pubescent logic tells her. She demonstrates incredible faith and a commitment that is well beyond her years.
Let us imagine the next several months of Mary’s life. We know from the Gospel of Matthew that Joseph was also visited by an angel who shared with him the story of Mary’s situation. Joseph, like Mary, believed what was told to him and did what the angel instructed: he proceeded with the betrothal, accepting Mary and her child (Matt 1:20–25).
Of course, Mary did not have access to a book such as Your Pregnancy Week by Week. Perhaps she instead made it her weekly ritual to listen to Isaiah’s prophecy: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14 NRSV). Every time morning sickness swept over her, perhaps Joseph held her hand and comforted her with the words that she was going to give birth to the Savior of the World.
Perhaps in moments of doubt and fear—when neighbors clucked their tongues at her or whispered behind her back—she replayed that scene when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. This was shortly after the angel visited her, when her pregnancy was still, presumably, a secret. Do you remember how Elizabeth and John the Baptist, yet in utero, responded when Mary approached? Luke tells us that the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. And he tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately recognized that Mary had been chosen—that Mary was the one who would fulfill the prophecy that their people had been longing to be fulfilled for centuries. Elizabeth and her unborn child affirmed Mary’s unlikely choice to bear the Son of God.
In the years that followed, did Mary ever doubt her role as the bearer of Christ? Surely her pregnancy was not easy. We know the delivery was not. When she had to flee with her husband and infant to escape certain death, did she wonder if she had done the right thing? When her adolescent son stayed behind in the temple courts, causing her to fear that she had lost him, did she question whether she was the right one to be looking after the Savior of the World? When he left the family trade and set out on his own, was she perplexed by this decision? When the religious leaders ridiculed and threatened him, did she fear for his life? When he turned water to wine, healed the sick, and cast out demons, did she smile a private smile? When she watched him being nailed to the cross, did a sword pierce her soul?
Did Mary comprehend how important her role would be in bringing salvation to the world? Probably not, yet she still said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
Listen to the words of a poem by Episcopal priest Alla Renée Bozarth:
Before Jesus was his mother.
Before supper in the upper room,
breakfast in the barn.
Before the Passover Feast,
a feeding trough.
And here, the altar of Earth,
fair linens of hay and seed.
Before his cry, her cry.
Before his sweat of blood,
her bleeding and tears.
Before his offering, hers.
Before the breaking of bread and death,
the breaking of her body in birth.
Before the offering of the cup,
the offering of her breast.
Before his blood, her blood.
And by her body and blood alone,
his body and blood and whole human being.
The wise ones knelt
to hear the woman’s word
Holding up her sacred child,
her spark of God in the form of a babe,
she said: “Receive and let your hearts be healed
and your lives be filled with love, for
This is my body, This is my blood.”2
Mary’s choice to accept the role of Christ-bearer changed not only her life but also the lives of all who have come after her. With the acceptance of this role, Mary risked her marriage to Joseph. She had no guarantee that he would accept her. In fact, she had probably seen other young women in similar circumstances be rejected, abandoned, and scorned by their husbands. She risked being ostracized, or worse, by her family and her community. She willingly accepted the responsibility of nurturing God in the flesh. Never mind that she had no experience as a mother.
Mary allowed herself to be completely transformed when she accepted the role of Christ-bearer. She knowingly exposed herself to criticism and condemnation because she had faith that the task to which she had been called was greater than herself.
Bearing Christ to the World
Which brings me to us, today. Because Mary made the choice to be the bearer of Christ, we, too—women and men—can be Christ-bearers. Mary gave birth to Emmanuel, God with us. Now God is with us and invites us to share Christ, our salvation, with the world. No doubt, if we choose to accept this partnership—if we choose to be Christ-bearers—our lives will be changed.
When we embody Christ, people will notice and respond. Some, out of concern, will encourage us to conform to their narrow view of what it means bear Christ. Others will be curious, perhaps even wanting to rub our “spiritual bellies.” Still others will reject and ridicule us, deeming our “condition” unjustified, inappropriate, or offensive. We may find ourselves misunderstood, frustrated, or abandoned. But it is Scripture and the Elizabeths in our lives who will affirm and celebrate that Christ is in us. They will fortify and embolden us so that when plagued by inexperience or burdened by responsibility, we will have the confidence and courage we need to give voice to God’s message of salvation.
Accepting the call to be a Christ-bearer means accepting many risks in order to deliver hope to the world. It requires a willingness to be transformed—to submit ourselves humbly to a message that will challenge and change us from the inside out. As we enter into the Advent season, anticipating the birth of the Christ Child and looking to his second coming, let us consider how we, like Mary, might risk being redefined and refined. Let us respond as Mary did, with a “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55 NRSV)
1. Now in its eighth edition: Glade B. Curtis and Judith Schuler, Your Pregnancy Week by Week (Da Capo, 2016).
2. Alla Renée Bozarth, “Before Jesus,” in Accidental Wisdom (iUniverse, 2003) 209–10, quoted with permission.
Photo by Neal E. Johnson on Unsplash.