In the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew, a 5th Century Coptic text, we find the following story about Blessed Mary, Virgin Mother of God Incarnate: The resurrected Christ was teaching the apostles the mysteries of salvation when he suddenly vanished. Mary is with the apostles, and they decide to ask her “how she conceived the incomprehensible or how she carried him who cannot be carried or how she bore so much greatness.” She warns them that she cannot describe this mystery: “For if I begin to tell you, fire will come out of my mouth and consume the whole earth.”
The apostles are relentless, however, and continue to press her to tell them about the conception of God. Mary responds by inviting them to pray. She spreads her hands to the heavens and calls upon God, the creator of the cosmos saying, “The seven heavens could hardly contain thee, but thou was pleased to be contained in me, without causing me pain, thou who are the perfect Word of the Father through whom everything was created.” Mary then instructs the apostles to sit around her, each one holding a part of her body, lest her limbs fly apart when she describes the mystery of bearing the Creator of the universe within herself.
She then begins to tell the story, beginning with the angel who brought her the news of Christ’s conception. “As she was saying this, fire came from her mouth and the world was on the point of being burned up. Then came Jesus quickly and said to Mary, “Say no more or today my whole creation will come to an end.”
This story wonderfully exemplifies the mystery of salvation and the power that Mary has exercised in the Christian imagination from the very beginning of the Church. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 officially declared Mary, Theotókos, literally God-bearer. For at least two hundred years before Chalcedon, early Church fathers (and mothers, too, no doubt) had pondered Mary’s role in the mystery of our redemption, and countless Christians already were calling upon her to pray for them.
There were surely a variety of impulses at work in this devotion to Mary. Theologically, understanding Mary as the Virgin Mother of God is an important way to affirm that Jesus is both human and divine, protecting the unity of the two natures in one person. Mary, as mother of Jesus, serves as a hedge against those who deny Jesus’ humanity and despise bodily existence generally. Mary, as Virgin Mother, serves also as a hedge against those who deny Jesus’ divinity and the idea of Incarnation generally: materialists of various stripes who deny the capacity of creation to reveal the glory of God, to display its transcendent depth.
This may seem a bit abstract and, frankly, fanciful, if we fail to see that what is at stake here is not gynecology, but soteriology: what is at stake is human salvation. Christian orthodoxy proclaims that God became human so that humans can become divine. Salvation is a process of divinization, of realizing our identity as children of God; not by denying or denigrating our humanity, but rather by affirming its transcendent origin and end in God.
Jesus calls us to put do death our false self, that fragmented, defensive self born of our fears and fantasies, and embrace instead the freedom that comes with living in reality. As St. Paul said, even though born of a woman, born under the law, Jesus broke the bonds of human slavery to biology and culture, to all those partial loyalties that determine our identity, and invites us to accept that divine adoption which establishes our true self. Humans were made for divinity.
Dogmatic formulations about Mary serve to maintain the unity of humanity and divinity in the economy of salvation. Mary’s spiritual power and symbolic resonance, however, has never been contained by such formulations, no matter how true and liberating they may be. When the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary Theotókos in 431, the people of the city danced in the streets. Formerly devoted to the goddess Artemis, a manifestation of the Magna Mater, the Mother Goddess worshipped by Mediterranean peoples for centuries, the people of Ephesus saw in Mary a renewed expression of the divine feminine.
We see something of this in the story from the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew, with which I began. While set within a perfectly orthodox framework, the story confronts us with the full force of feminine spiritual power that Mary conveys. Jesus has to step in and shut her up, less this voracious power consume the whole creation. Perhaps there is more than a little projection of male insecurity and fear of female creativity in the telling of this story, but the grace in it is that Mary has kept alive a sense of the divine feminine in our tradition, preventing us from collapsing into complete patriarchal nonsense when it comes to imagining God; who is, of course, finally unimaginable. This is not the demure, passive Mary of later popular piety. This is the creative power of the divine erupting into human history, mighty and terrible to behold.
Mary, as Virgin Mother of God Incarnate, is also a type of the Church. She is us and we are Mary. We are God-bearers, too, and the whole mystery of divinity, of creation and redemption, is contained in us, waiting to be born. Our whole purpose in life is nothing less than to give birth to the Christ in us, individually and collectively, for the sake of the salvation of the world.
In imagery that may seem scandalous, Grant Gallup vividly portrays Mary’s importance as model for Christian life. He writes that “As Mary ‘broke her water’ Jesus was baptized into our humanity before he was baptized by his cousin John in [the] Jordan. Mary became the first Christian herself in that flood she let loose, and the first Christian priest, who consecrated the Eucharist in her own womb and in her arms, as she offers him to us, the True Bread that comes down from heaven.” Jesus, the Incarnate Word from all eternity, was baptized into our humanity, just as we are baptized into his divinity. The mystery of this dual baptism subsists in Mary, Mother Church.
How do we even begin to plumb the depths of the mystery of Christ being born in us? When the apostles pressed Mary for an answer, she invited them to pray. Then she instructed them to hold on to her, to keep her grounded; she is afraid she might literally be blown away by this mystery. I think this story is a parable of our own spiritual practice. Approaching the mystery of our being in God, and Christ being formed in us, should inspire a certain amount of awe and humility. The movement inward, in prayer and meditation, is the means whereby we touch the mystery, allowing it to transform our very identity and life into the likeness of Christ; but it must be balanced by a movement outward into community. We need to hold on to one another, to keep each other grounded so that our inner journey does not degenerate into sheer narcissism or escapism.
At the same time, our involvement in community and all the busyness of caring for others can degenerate into mere codependence and flight from the deep inner transformation that God seeks to work in each of us. Each of us must undergo her or his own crucifixion of the false self and resurrection of the true self in union with Christ. Authentic Christian spirituality has nothing to do with either flight from the world, or flight from the self; it has everything to do with the transformation of both self and world.
Mary is Theotókos, God-bearer, and icon of the Church. As such, she teaches us that we need both solitude and solidarity. Christ must be born in us and in this gathered community. Our God-bearing is not for our own sake, or even for the sake of the Church. It is for the sake of the salvation of the world.
It is here that we need to read the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew in light of the canonical Gospel of Luke. The words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving that we heard read this morning, remind us that the grace which works our transformation into the likeness of Christ is in service to the reign of God. This reign is not simply an inner state of mind, the consolation of personal serenity. God’s reign is the presence of justice for the poor and peace among the nations.
Mary praises God, not only for the favor shown her in being chosen to be Theotókos, but because she knows that the Christ born in her will be for the healing of the world. This is the source of her joy and astonishment: that God is pleased to become manifest through her to join in the struggle and suffering of humanity. Mary is the instrument of the great reversal whereby God takes the nobodies of this world and from them makes a holy people consecrated for the blessing and renewal of the earth. And so are we.
Each of us has her or his part to play in the drama of salvation. We are the body of Christ in solidarity with the poor, the little ones, the endangered species, the desecrated planet that is our home. We are the agents of the transformation, the great reversal, that God is working in history through us and in spite of us. It is for this that Mary consented to give birth to God Incarnate. And that is why we call her “blessed.”