At the end of this Advent season, it is appropriate to spend some time thinking about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She has always been revered by Christians, and rightly so. She is given the title, Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. She bore God in her very body. In casting about for ways of describing—if not totally understanding—how this could be, some of the earliest Christians found images from the Hebrew Scripture (what Christians sometimes call the Old Testament) to use as poetic witnesses to the true mystery of Mary.
In Exodus chapter 3, Moses comes across a bush on Mt. Horeb (a lot of important stuff happens on Mt. Horeb). The bush is on fire, and yet, as Moses watches, he realizes that it is not burning up.
Moses then hears a voice calling to him, “Do not come near! Take off your sandals! You are standing on holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Some ancient Christians speak of this as an image for Mary. Mary is like the burning bush in that she was completely overtaken (overshadowed is the word in Luke 1) by the presence and the glory, and the mystery of God who became incarnate within her, and yet she remained undestroyed, unconsumed by the fire of God’s holiness. She remained a person, just like us.
Another image is from one of the stories that we investigated in our Advent Soup Group a few weeks ago (thanks to everyone who was able to participate in that!). Our study was about stones in the Bible. The story in question, from Genesis chapter 28, is about Jacob who has to leave home fast after tricking his brother and father. He stops for the night, and uses a stone as a pillow. In the night he has a vision of a ladder between earth and heaven, and angels ascending and descending. The LORD stands before Jacob and promises to be with him always. When Jacob wakes up he realizes that he has found “a gate of heaven,” that is a place where the veil that separates the world we see from the divine reality is particularly thin. Jacob raises his stone pillow as a memorial to this event, and he calls the place, Bethel, which means “the house of God.”
Severus, a 6th century bishop, relates this story to the mystery of Mary:
“If you want to know how [the miraculous birth of Jesus] happened, your investigations remain blocked by the seal of virginity, which this birth in no wise violated. And that which is sealed is absolutely untouchable; it remains secret, and one cannot speak about it at all. Someone then, struck by this prodigy, will cry out, like Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).
In her extraordinary acceptance of God’s plan for her life, Mary literally became Bethel, the House of God. She became a site where the divine, transcendent reality became manifest to us. This divine reality has a name, because of Mary—Jesus, born as her son on a bleak winter’s night in an insignificant village in Palestine. God. What a wondrous mystery.