The Anglican Church, together with most other branches of the Christian Church, today celebrates the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mother. It is usual for saints to be commemorated on their date of death, but Mary and John the Baptist are remembered on their birthdays because of their particular roles in pointing the way to Jesus. Of course, no one really knows the date when either saint was born, so it is a rough calculation taken from hints in early writings.
The chief source for information about Mary’s birth is in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal text written in the late second century. Her parents are known as Anne and Joachim; he was reported to be a wealthy member of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and an important man. It is said that he and Anne were grieved by their childlessness and, like Abraham and Sara before Isaac was born, they prayed earnestly for a child – Mary was born and she was given a special blessing by the priests of the Temple.
Mary is probably one of the most divisive figures in the Christian Church. Some seem to revere her almost as much as her Son, whilst others seem to want to air brush her entirely out of the Christian story – these extreme attitudes inevitably create conflict!
It seems to me that the Church as a whole cannot ignore Mary, nor should we feel embarrassed to praise the amazing part she played in our Salvation history. If God was to fulfil his plan to become fully human, He had to be born in the same way as the rest of us! In our modern world we are no longer fazed by babies being born to unmarried parents, we are even becoming more used to the idea of surrogacy, but in the strict Jewish culture of two thousand years ago, it must have required a great deal of courage for Mary to say ‘Yes’ to God.
The Christmas story of a baby born to a young girl in a stable in Bethlehem is one of the most well known and magical stories of all time. Except it was not magic, it carried with it all the usual trials and tribulations of childbirth – as well as the joys – that was the whole point. Nor did Mary run away when she witnessed the thing all parents dread most, the death of her Son: she was at the foot of the cross throughout to witness the pain and the suffering of Jesus. She must have had enormous faith and courage and on a very human level I admire her. I also give thanks that, where some of us might waver if we are called on by God to do difficult things, Mary just said ‘Yes’. And yet Mary was fully human, with human parents, just as we are.
On the day we celebrate as the anniversary of her birth, let us give thanks for her courage in being prepared to become the ‘Theotokos’, the God Bearer, and pray that we too may have the courage to respond to God’s call, however challenging it may be.