More recently, I discovered that it is a painting of the ‘Visitation,’ when Mary visited Elizabeth. It was painted by Br. Mickey O’Neill McGrath. Mary is the woman on the left. She is wrapped in the sun and her green blanket consists of stars and crosses, symbolizing the birth and death of the child she carries. She looks like she may be a little anxious or afraid. Elizabeth, who is older, is welcoming her and maybe reassuring her, with a big warm smile. Both of their halos and arms form a heart which meets in a swirl symbolizing the children they carry.
That’s a lot more than I bargained for when I bought it for the upstairs hallway.
I’ve heard this story probably every year for many years. I know it inside and out. But like the picture, it means more to me now.
Mary is known by many names in the Catholic and in the Orthodox Churches, like Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. We may be familiar with some of them. ‘The Virgin Mary’, ‘Mary, the Mother of Jesus’, ‘The Madonna’ or ‘Mother of God’, but there are many others that are less familiar to us. One that I particularly like is the Greek “Theotokos,” which means God-Bearer. One who carries God.
When Mary met Elizabeth, each was reassured by the other. What they had been told, and what they dared to believe, was actually true. Can you imagine it? Elizabeth, who was way too old to conceive a child, had conceived a child. Her husband Zechariah, the high priest, had been in the temple offering incense when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him. Gabriel told him that their prayers were answered, and Elizabeth would have a son. Zechariah didn’t believe it. When he questioned the angel, he was told that because he doubted the angel’s word, he would be unable to speak until the child was born. And that child would be named John.
And that’s what happened. When he was born, all the relatives crowded around asking what they were going to name the little boy. The relatives wanted ‘Zechariah’, after his father, but Zechariah motioned for a pen and paper, or quill and papyrus, and wrote down, “He will be called John,” which is what the angel told him. At that moment, he was able to speak again.
The meeting with Elizabeth is a lovely story. God has chosen two unknown women, to bring God’s presence into the world. I love the idea that Mary is the ‘Theotokos’ – the ‘God Bearer’ in the year 0, or more likely, about the year 4CE. But that’s just the very beginning of the story. We are the Theotokos, the God Bearers today.
God was born into the craziness of their lives. There was fear and excitement, and also anxiety, unsureness, and worry about the future. The lives around them were in some ways unsure and unstable. Zachary had a great job – he was a high priest, but it was a job under pressure. The Romans could squash them at any turn – and in fact they did in the year 70 when they destroyed the temple. The year that John and Jesus were born, or a year or two before that, Sepphoris, the town down the road, had been destroyed by the Romans, and everyone who wasn’t killed was taken into slavery. He didn’t know how long he they could keep up a working relationship with his enemy. He didn’t know if he’d have a job next year, or if he would even be alive. It wasn’t a great time to be a high profile Jew.
Mary and Joseph weren’t at all high profile. They were just part of the rabble, the ordinary people who later had to head out walking to Bethlehem for the head count while she was on the verge of having her baby. They were not famous or well known, and their lives were perhaps even less secure. On top of that, she was a young unwed mother during a time when they stoned women for adultery. She didn’t know how her family would react – or maybe that’s part of the reason she went to visit her cousin. She didn’t know what would happen.
But these are the two women in the year somewhere between 0 and 4 CE, that agreed to bring God, and God’s prophet, into the world. They were women of courage. They were women of faith. They were risk-takers, and they said Yes to God. They were the Theotokos, the God-Carriers and God-Birthers of the year 4 CE.
We are the Theotokos, the God-Carriers, the God-Birthers of the year 2018. Jesus wasn’t born never to be heard from again. He was born, lived, taught, loved, healed, helped and died, promising to stay with us. And each of us, regardless of our gender or age, or relationships; single, widowed, married or committed, all of us are the ones that continue to say yes, who let God come into the world again by our actions and words, by our lives. We are the God-Bearers and the God-Birthers of today. God was born of humanity then, and God has continued to be born throughout history whenever anyone says ‘yes’ to love, to presence, to relationship, to connection. God enters the world again each time we say ‘yes’ to hope, to kindness, to generosity, to joy. The promise of Christmas is that God will continue to be born into our world. Keep saying, “Yes!” Theotokos! You are the God-Bearers today!