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“The Ever Ancient Mary”
Matthew 1:16-23 + Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio + December 28, 2014 + Kyndall Rae Rothaus
She is so old her teeth have begun to rattle loose. They say her mind may be going, but she says her mind is coming, always comin’ to her, alive with recollection and remembrance.
She is tracing the deep wrinkles in her hands with the edge of her thumb. She thinks of her well-worn hands in contrast to his baby fresh skin she once held in younger arms. Whatever they may say of her mind, her memories are clear. She pictures his tiny toes, smells his newborn, feels the smoothness of his miniature, pudgy legs.
Her body is a history. From her long gray hair to her now-gnarled feet, she is vibrant with memory. Like the pages of a book, her bones carry stories. The younger ones think she is this way because she is old, but this is not so. She is this way because she is mother. Because she is. She was born this way, to tell the truth, but even if they were listening to her, no one would believe it, that she was been carrying the stories of her people all her life.
They have painted her into books and into picture frames, into cathedrals and into music as the ever-young, ever-so-innocent virgin. The moderns have interpreted “virgin” to be about sex, or more accurately, the lack thereof. As if the non-act of virginity were some sort of noble feat favored by the gods. They imagine a surprise secret meeting between the old wise Gabriel and the naïve little girl.
But she has never been young and she has never been innocent. It was as if she came out of the womb grieving, knowing deep within her the suffering of her people. From childhood the cries of Tamar, the fears of Rahab, the songs of Ruth, and the moans of Bathsheba were inside her flesh. The groans of women, the crushing need for a savior, the ever-thwarted hope of an oppressed people—all this rocked and creaked inside her skin so often and with such force she thought she would topple.
To be virgin means to be whole, pure, undivided, to belong to one’s self, to possess one’s self, to be enslaved by no vice, addiction, or self-destructive greed. Having been one who had felt the conflicts of the ages warring inside her heart, she would never have guessed herself pure. She felt, instead, stained by the blood of her people—from the blood of Abel to the blood of Uriah, the blood of the Levite’s concubine to the blood of the Canaanites. She did not know why the stories affected her so. Why it was she could not forget, though many people had. Why it was she could not sleep for the vividness of her memory. Nothing about this alertness to pain felt pure to her. It felt twisted, unrelenting, oppressive, dark.
But the heavens judged otherwise. They knew only someone such as this—one who had born the agony of her people—could be ripe for conceiving heaven-sent, human-born hope.
This is what is meant by the virgin birth.
It has been said God needed a virgin to be born in. Not an untouched female but an undistracted human being, untainted by self-deception. Someone who knew themselves and their world with open-eyed honesty. Someone with enough uncluttered space within themselves to grow the seed of God, available for swelling out with God. It is said God still looks for such persons, male and female wombs that are fertile.
So many women before her had been touched and tainted, and so often against their will. She carried their violations within her bosom, nursed them like children who needed care.
When her own son was born, she wept. Unlike most mothers, she did not weep for joy, because her soul was old and wise, and she could see what was coming. She could see that he would not live past his thirty-third year; that she, is own mother, would watch him die, would see him buried. That more than any other story she had carried around like lead in her gut, this one would kill her, ravage her, destroy her.
More than any person to ever walk this earth, she would understand the Apostle Paul quite clearly when he wrote we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10).
She was his mother. And so she knew, from the minute he was born, from the minute she understood him to be God, that this was a God who would get down into the grit of the hurting world and eat their pain with them. That she would have to watch him take the ugly of the world into his own flesh, to let the evil die there, inside his death. No mother wants to bury her son, and no person of hope wants to bury God, but both of these she must do, and do with courage.
The oddest part was when he actually died. She cried of course, and she most certainly had not been able to endure with any serenity his beatings, his crucifixion, his labored breathing. But once he breathed his last, she cried tears of joy because his long terrible suffering was over. But more than that, suffering itself was coming to an end. She could feel it in the way her bones got lighter, sense it as if the wrinkled sorrows of her heart were being smoothed into youthful.
She could feel the weighted groans of the aching world being carried up to the heavens and heard in full at last. Listening close, she heard rocks wailing, which many thought to be the earth’s grief, but she thought perhaps it was the earth sighing deeply as if some terrible burden was being released. She could hear, far in the distance, the veil in the temple ripping, as if heaven had interrupted religion once and for all. She could smell the breath of mercy settling down upon the land like a fog that wouldn’t be lifting.
This is what sustained her the three long days until his miraculous return. And this is what sustains her now, as she looks down upon the inhabitants of the earth and sees that they still kill one another, beat one another, and oppress one another, which feels like her son being dead all over again. She sees the seemingly endless string of violence upon violence, the madness of it all, the senseless acting out of aggression and rage. She sees it and she weeps ancient tears, tears she has collected from the centuries before her and the centuries after.
And yet, she does not lose hope, because she has held in her own arms the very Son of God. Most people think God dead or absent, capricious or otherwise unavailable. But she knows different. She has seen God with her eyes. God so small and so vulnerable it was up to her to keep him alive, to feed him, to change him, to nourish and protect him.
This is not a God who is dead. If you had heard him cry when he was hungry, you would know different! This is not a God who is absent. This is a God more present, more close, more real than you can fathom. This is not a God capricious. This is a God steady as love, steady all the way to death and back. This is not a God unavailable, though it may often seem that way to you. This is a God right in the thick of it with you, and though you may think God gone, because God does not force the evil to stop but goes right on allowing it, this is a God who does not leave the cries of people behind but takes them into his being and makes them his own. This strange God stubbornly and repetitively chooses compassion over control and dominance. If you think God to be anything different than that, you should have known her son. He was a marvel to behold.
Now when she remembers the day of his birth, she no longer sheds tears, though she knows better than ever what pain comes with bearing that child into the world. Now, when she remembers his birth, as we too pause to remember, she laughs with sheer delight. She outright cackles at the madness of a God becoming baby. It is so absurd, so brilliant, so unexpected, so oddly effective, so stubbornly hopeful amidst raging oppressions, so undefeatable and unfatigable in its redemptive power that she smiles a broad, now nearly toothless grin upon every remembrance of this audacious acting God.
That she should participate in its coming is astounding. She thanks the wombs of her grandmothers and her great grandmothers for making this possible. For every human being who has ever been brave enough or virgin enough or expansive enough to birth a little bit of God anew into the world, she give thanks. For you who listen to her story, his story, year after year, looking for a measure of grace and mercy to reach you anew, she gives thanks for your listening ears and your listening hearts. For you who carry stories of pain and suffering deep in your heavy-weighted bones, she groans with you for she knows, and she gives thanks for your blessed sensitivity because it has the capacity to make you holy.
For the life, for the reality, the startling realness, the death and the resurrection of her son, she gives thanks. For all that is good and compassionate, kind, merciful and charitable in this world, she gives thanks. She joins the centuries old song of angels and rejoices, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” and no one, no one, no one is able to shut down her song. It persists through the ages with the strong voice of one who has born both death and life in her body. May her song echo in you and reverberate through your life. May her virginity inspire a wholehearted spaciousness within you for knowing God. May her son be with you forever. May you be vibrant with his memory, alive with his closeness. Death may be at work in us and around us, but so is life. Thanks be to God.
Merry Christmas and Amen.
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