Mothers of God
Christmas Eve, 2015
In the name of him who chooses to be born again in us, each and every day. Amen.
This past fall I had the pleasure of spending a few days on retreat in the company of a wonderful artist who produces startling paintings. Her name is Janet McKenzie. She’s the artist who produced the arresting painting called Jesus of the People—featuring a Jesus who looked more African American than Middle Eastern. Some of us here may know that image.
On retreat I got to know her a little bit and discovered that she also painted quite a few nativity scenes and even a lovely one for Epiphany that we’ll feature here on the third of January when we commemorate the visit of the Wise Men (and Women) to Jesus and his family. I bought a few boxes of Christmas cards featuring her art when I was on retreat.
And when I opened the cards to send some to family and friends I was startled by one in particular. It’s a depiction of Mary in the throes of labor, one hand on her contracting belly, flanked by two midwives who stand behind her in holy solidarity with her birthing. Now, the Scriptures say nothing about midwives at the birth of Jesus. But early Orthodox icons of the Nativity always include the midwives. And it just goes to reason that they would be present—midwives had been practicing their art for thousands and thousands of years before Christ.
Can’t you just imagine a panicked Joseph asking the innkeeper, “Quick! Send somebody to fetch the midwives!”
So now we’ll pass around a few copies of the painting. Just keep it moving during the sermon, but also, keep it as long as you like in order to enter into the scene more fully.
Those here tonight who have given birth might remember how it feels. Or they might not want to remember!
Those pains come upon you fast. There might be a few seconds of buildup but then they get intense and overwhelming. And wildly insistent. They have a mind of their own. The process is unstoppable, absorbing, and terrifying the first time you go through it. The second time you go through it, it’s likely to be just unstoppable and absorbing!
So I imagine that Mary could have been really scared, but perhaps not…after all she was closely linked to the Divine. And in this painting we see the Spirit hovering over her in the form of a dove, indicating divine shepherding and presence throughout the birthing. Mary’s eyes are closed in absorption as both God and human labor pains come upon her.
So I hope we can all picture in our minds that young woman giving birth to her first-born child, with midwives and an anxious husband hovering nearby. And with the Spirit of God fully present, bringing courage and calm. And then imagine that newborn cry of the baby, received into the world by the midwives, cleaned, swaddled, and given to his exhausted mother.
Mary is his creation; and also his mother. It’s an amazing paradox, isn’t it?
Now, the reason we’re meditating on the scene is to help us to jump to the next scene. That’s a God’s-eye view of each one of us, struggling to give birth to the Savior, again and again and again. It’s our invitation to be like Mary in a sense; to bring Jesus forth into the world with all the peace and courage and good will he carries.
My thought isn’t new. In the early 14th century there was a German mystic called Meister Eckhart. And Meister Eckhart famously wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” God is always needing us to carry him forth into the world. To share him with people who desperately need him. To share him with people who don’t even know they need him. That’s a very odd kind of thought, isn’t it? We may be mothers of God.
So--What’s it like to be in labor, giving birth to the Holy One? Well--It hurts like crazy sometimes, as we put our own stuff and our own needs and hang-ups on the back burner so that we might be present to others.
It is unstoppable sometimes as God places us in situations that require us to show forth God’s love and grace—whether we want to or not.
It is frightening to take risks to be kind, and good, and to show forth love, joy, and peace—even when we’d really rather not. We may fear rejection by others who don’t want any part of what we have to give. We may fear going deep inside ourselves because we know there’s stuff inside us that needs to be owned and healed. But that’s part of what we need to do in order to ready our guts to be his manger today and every day.
And it’s awesome and exhilarating to look back and see how—sometimes—we have given birth to the Holy One. We have brought Jesus into the world again.
Sometimes it’s relatively easy to give birth to the Holy. For instance--Helping people who are easy to help. Buying presents and food for people we don’t know. Writing a big check to church or another favorite charity. These things are easy.
But it’s so true that sometimes we fall short in our birthing. Sometimes we fall spectacularly short. At these times we do well to fall back on the faith that Christ is there to catch us even when we fail, to show us back to the path we’ve left. The shock of giving birth to God from an unholy vessel…it’s sobering. And it’s also utterly humbling.
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And yet we know that Jesus came to us in abject poverty, put to bed in an animal’s feed trough. We know he came to us because it was the best way for God to spill over his love into our midst—hands-on salvation, you might say.
None of us is worthy to birth God into the world. Yet we are privileged and expected to do so. And we’re also expected sometimes to be midwives to people we know who are trying to bring God into the world by standing beside them in their labors and sometimes being their cheering squad as they work hard to open to the Holy.
Each of us is “meant to be [a] mother of God [and even a midwife sometimes], for God is always needing to be born.” [Meister Eckhart]