Mary, the Mother of Christmas

Readers- before Robynn left for India she wrote a few posts for Fridays with Robynn. Enjoy this one on Mary, the Mother of Christmas.


Since the moment the angel first appeared to Mary all those years ago, nine months or so before the very first Christmas, until now, her story has fascinated me.

In some countries and circles she has been venerated almost to the point of being deified. She has been painted, prayed to, discovered on grilled cheese sandwiches and on the tops of mountains in France. Shrines have been set up to her. People have looked to her to perform miracles or to convince her Son to perform miracles. As a result many of us Protestants have thrown out the Baby’s mother with the bath water. We have freaked out and we’ve over-reacted! Certainly, it is true, we should not ascribe to her what only belongs to her Son, but neither should we ignore her.

Mary, this “lowly servant girl” has a lot to teach us and we need to be among those who “from now on call (her) blessed”.

In the Old Testament God related to his humankind through an elaborate system of laws, sacrifices, priests. It seems to me that He set up a system that the people couldn’t possibly succeed at. They were human. They failed. And he knew that they would. He let them try again and again and again. He was preparing the stage for the grand entrance of Grace and Hope… for the birth of Jesus.

And He chose Mary to be the woman who would bear the Son. She was the package, the vessel, the container. Hers was the womb. She alone was chosen for the unique privilege of being the first to be literally indwelt with God himself, with the Son, to contain the very Presence of God.

​And what was Mary’s response? Her first reaction was confusion but not doubt. She was perplexed over the biology of the whole thing. How could this happen? Spiritually she didn’t hesitate for a minute. There was woven into the fabric of Mary’s soul an eagerness, a faith, an expectancy that looked to God –fully believing he would do what he said. She didn’t flinch. She didn’t hesitate. She said yes to God. And her yes brought Jesus into her world. Mary’s yes delivered the Christ to those around her and ultimately to us!

Mary was the first to give home to the indwelling presence of God—the Son in Embryonic form was knit together in Mary’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully. And because of her agreeing in faith to house the Holy One we also are invited into a similar experience. We also at the point of our believing, at the moment of faith, are in some way overshadowed by the Holy One and filled with the Spirit. It is no less a miracle than that first filling. The reality is just as sure that God himself is with us. He has left us His Spirit and He resides in us—fearfully and wonderfully.

We too are filled with God. He is Emmanuel. God with us.

We may at times experience the perplexity: how can this be? And yet let us also join with Mary in faith. Let us not flinch back in fear from being overshadowed by God! Let us not hesitate to surrender to God, to what He is doing in our lives, to how He wants to use us to deliver Christ to the world around us. Mary was our example. Let us join with her and say “yes” to our great God!20131213-090031.jpg

This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting

christmas ornament

Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed.
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The tune is haunting and lyrical as we picture the poor young mama and her baby, alone with no one to help. Joseph is by her side, but completely clueless.  Yet somehow, the little family manages and songs come down through the ages perpetuating what is probably a completely wrong picture.

I’ve read many lovely Christmas pieces — how alone Mary and Joseph were during their night-time trip to Bethlehem, her heavy with child and all; how there was no room, and so they were put in the stable; how the cows came and licked the face of Jesus (like any new mom would let that happen….) These pieces are written in beautiful prose and I find myself tearing up a bit.

Cold, alone, dirty stables, animal excrement, mooing, neighing, hay — it’s all there, and for the person who is an artist with their words it is perfect material.

But the thing is, we’ve got the stable and the manger thing a bit distorted. It’s the limitations of language and translation coupled with our own misconceptions about life in Bethlehem at the time.

I don’t wish to be a cynic or spoiler – those who have written pieces have done a beautiful job in capturing our emotions. But when did we begin to re-write Biblical stories, church traditions through a western pen?

When did the familiar story become so familiar that it became incorrect?

Living in Pakistan and the Middle East helped me to view the scriptures in a different way, to think about the Bible beyond western thought and tradition.

And that is why I appreciate Ken Bailey and his scholarship around Middle Eastern life during the time of Jesus so much. Bailey lived for over 60 years in various countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus. He is an expert in New Testament scholarship.

He wants to set the record straight on the dirty, cold stable and in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he challenges our western assumptions and guides us to a more complete understanding. He does this so that the stories can, “like a diamond, be restored to their original brilliance.”

So let’s see what a more complete picture looks like:

First off – there was no inn in the sense that the west knows it. There was no commercial space with a fireplace and breakfast in the morning for a price. Instead the word in Greek refers to a guest space, an ‘upper room’ commonly used for hosting guests, relatives of the family. Likely the relatives had others staying with them as the census was being taken “throughout the known world.” Joseph was from a royal line and as such there would have been a space for them to stay. Early Christians when hearing the narrative of the birth of Christ would not have assumed a public inn where there was no space, rather they would assume there was no room in the upper room where guests usually stayed. Instead they were put in more of a ‘family’ room. At one end of this room would be an area a few feet lower where animals were brought inside during the night and led outside first thing in the morning. The family room would also have mangers dug into the ground where animals could feed during the night should they be hungry.

Second – giving birth was a big deal, a community event that took place with female members of the family, one of whom would have been a midwife. There is no way Mary gave birth alone and Joseph cut the cord and delivered the placenta. No.Way. That is 21st century thinking right there. Although probably not with her mom, she would have been with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. There would have been a clean space, water heated, and women to help. Stop for a moment and imagine you were the midwife at the birth. Can you picture the miracle moment, that moment that happens after every successful delivery, when you realized this one was different? When a chill went up your spine and a ‘Glory to God’ was spontaneously shouted  from your soul? For it wasn’t an emergency birth, rather it was a common birth of an uncommon child.  

Third – He was worshiped by shepherds, the lowest of all in the social strata. And their sign, says Bailey, is indeed the manger. Because they would find him in a manger, they knew he would be in a home of a peasant and the family would not dismiss them as unworthy and unclean, not allowing them to come and offer their worship. The gospel of Luke says that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Bailey goes on to say that the word ‘all’ refers to the “quality of hospitality”.

“If they had found a young mother with her first child in the middle of a filthy stable, scared to death with no older women around to help her, the shepherds would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’” Bailey, Open Hearts in Bethlehem

Ken Bailey summarizes it this way:

“To summarize … the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where
they were received into a private home. The child was born,
wrapped and … ‘put to bed’ … in the living room in the manger
that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved
into the family living space. … The guest room was already
occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted
Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house. … The
village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth.
After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to
bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a
blanket.” Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 34–35.

He goes on to say that understanding the context and the real story makes the story better, richer, and more filled with meaning.

Because the truth about the birth of Christ is this:

That this Jesus laid aside all that was rightfully his, putting aside his glory to become Incarnate. This is the beauty of Advent, the mystery of the Incarnation. He, a King, was born in a peasant’s home. He, the Lord of all, was reduced to a newborn baby with an umbilical cord that needed to be cut. He, the Saviour, needed breast milk and human warmth to survive.

And if we could wrap our heads around that, we would have no need to make the way he was born harder than it was. 

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 7 “From Mary in the Blue Dress to Most Holy Theotokos”


The image comes from my Sunday School days of long ago. Mary is pale and pure, always in blue, probably to match her distinctively blue eyes. Her head is draped with a white cloth, somewhat like the dupattas I’m so familiar with. She is sweet, submissive, and not a little frail. She looks a bit like the wind could blow her away as she sits in reverent awe of the wee one in her arms. Joseph is always standing. “Does he never sit” asks the irreverent child in an audible whisper.

And of course there are ox and ass and sheep and shepherds and a dirty stable. Because that’s the story that made its way into 20th century Sunday School classes, no matter how erroneous it is.

Mary, just a girl, a teenager who said ‘yes’. Just like you or me.

And then I meet Eastern Orthodoxy and the image goes from white and blue to brilliant golds and reds, deep greens and oranges. I’m aghast! Where is my wee Mary? Where is my sweet Mary?

It turns out she doesn’t exist in the Eastern Orthodox church. Not that Mary. The Mary I’ve been introduced to is a warrior. She is the Theotokos. The God-bearer. She is far more than the young thing that said yes to the angel Gabriel.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

I have been introduced to the woman to whom Elizabeth cried “Blessed art thou among women!” and “From now on, all generations will call you blessed!” These are powerful words, words that many in Christendom have forgotten, for I’ll be honest – I’ve not heard Mary, the mother of Jesus, called blessed once in the past 20 years in any protestant church I’ve attended. She’s not mentioned but on Christmas, and then only in the scripture passage read during the Advent season.

Mary, who both nursed the Christ-child and wept with tears that pierced her soul at his blood stained body on the cross. Mary who urged Jesus to intervene at a wedding. Mary who scolded Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem, worried sick was she at her son’s disappearance.

And I can’t help thinking, she must abhor the controversy about her. She must shake her head in despair at the extremes that emerge when it comes to views of her role in Christianity. The skeptic in the west who fears any mention may lead to an out of control adoration and the superstition in the east that can lead to a view that puts her on equal footing with God.

So I ask and I search to find out more about this new Mary, who bears no resemblance to the old Mary, the one I was so comfortable with, who was so safe.

I read and I question and I first find what the Orthodox do not believe. They do not worship Mary. They venerate her — just like they don’t worship icons, they venerate them. They hold them in high regard and respect, they are careful in the ways they treat them, careful not to treat them with apathy and disregard. The Orthodox do not believe Mary was born without sin. Nor do they believe that she is “co-redemptor” with Christ.

And then I move farther and I find that Mary is a picture of what it is to become Christ-like. As the bearer of God, the Theotokos, she represents a willingness and humility to bear the Son of God. She, just as all humans before and after her, had free will. She used that free will to say “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

Mary was a precious and contributing member to the early church, cared for by the apostles and loved by early believers.

It turns out when it comes to Mary, I am not a Reluctant Orthodox, but a hard-core believer that this woman who exudes strength, humility, truth, and the deepest obedience is worth respecting and loving. I am grateful for a fresh view, a new view of Mary. She is, after all, the Mother of my Lord.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 5 “On Icons and Changing Vision”

I sat and stared at the icon feeling guilty. I didn’t feel a thing. I had no attachment to icons. I had no emotion other than guilt for not having emotion. I didn’t feel in any way like they were ‘graven images’, that common response of Protestants to icons, rather I didn’t feel they were anything special, anything ‘other’ worldly.

Perhaps that was worse than not liking them. Hate and dislike we can work with, indifference is the real killer. 

These were the thoughts that went through my heart and head a few years ago, as I watched my husband make the sign of the cross and then prostrate before a large icon in the narthex of a church. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why he liked them, why he viewed them as ‘windows’ to worship.

I didn’t get it, yet it was all my fault. A few years before I had given him an “icon-writing class” as a birthday gift. Icons are not painted, they are written. The person making them is writing the life of the person depicted through pictures. The class involved 52 hours of instruction. The instruction turned out to be both instruction and meditation and healing as the class read and contemplated the life of the person they were depicting on the icon.

The writing of an icon is serious work, not to be taken lightly or as a ‘hobby’. Prayer, fasting, and meditation are all part of the process of iconography. It became something of a joke for us as we told people he had to do some of this in complete silence — we are both talkers. Distinctive in the making of icons is the iconographer’s meditation and attention to the life of the one they are depicting. They study as much about the life of the person as possible, they write the icon while prayerfully meditating. And they are never signed – it’s not about the artist, it’s about the Saint whose image is on the icon.

At the end of the class he brought home the icon. It was breath-catching. It was a Russian icon of Mary the Mother of God, the ‘Theotokos’, the ‘God-Bearer’ holding Jesus in a tender embrace.

I slowly began to learn about icons. I learned that icons are not new to worship, not new to the Church. They were found in catacombs and places of worship since the early church. When a worshiper came into a church, they could see the entire Gospel story told through Icons on the walls. For ancient congregations with low literacy rates, this made complete sense.

And then came a period of history during the Byzantine Empire where icons were decried as idolatrous, where priceless icons were defaced and destroyed. This was a dark period – ‘We don’t worship the wood, we don’t worship the paint” was the cry of the faithful. “We venerate the person who is depicted on the icon. We adore God, we only venerate icons.” And therein was a huge distinction.

And so I began to pray, pray the the indifference would leave, that I would see with new eyes, that my vision would be changed. Mostly I prayed that I would be okay with mystery – that I wouldn’t try to analyze everything, breaking it down to my limited understanding.

I began to see these icons, with their deep colors of gold, burgundy, deep green, and brown, in a new way. I began to appreciate them. I still didn’t feel a lot, but I could now look at them and wonder about the life of the saint, want to know more about the living person looking back at me from the inanimate wood and paint.

I realized that I had pictures of family, including dead family in my home. I would look at them and think about them, about their lives, about how they reflected Christ to me – particularly my maternal grandma. How was this different?

And then came the day this fall – the day when I suddenly felt something. I was by an icon of Jesus, it is called the Pantocrator, the ‘ruler of all’ and it depicts Jesus Christ as both lover of mankind and as a righteous judge. With a rush of emotion I saw the strong and suffering Christ, the one who gave all, who lived as man so he could experience our story — the pain of the human condition.  Then the final seal of his great love, his separation from the Father in his death on the cross.

This Reluctant Orthodox of the stubborn heart and the dim eyesight, felt tears begin to form. Herein was a window to a greater understanding of my faith, a greater understanding of the lives of those who have gone before, who lived lives of faith, often accompanied by great suffering, because of their love of God.

I find that the questions in my heart about icons began to change. No longer was the question “Why do Orthodox find icons important, ” but rather “Why don’t Protestants?”

“Icons lead one to prayer, to standing before something beyond comprehension and resting in it in trust. Their meaning cannot be exhausted by analysis but only by entering in on their terms and allowing the icon to speak to you, perhaps to change you.” Frederica Matthewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now

More Than a Merry Christmas

“Merry Christmas” said the gruff, well-seasoned bus driver. He paused. “And if you don’t celebrate Christmas I’m not talking to you!”

In politically correct Cambridge I thought my ears were going to fall off. And I feared a bit for his life. But in the spirit of the season, most people were good-hearted and merry about the interaction, wishing the driver a happy holiday or Merry Christmas as they left the bus.

It also made me think about the “war on Christmas”. I realize it’s not something I’ve fretted over. While I think ‘X’mas’ looks a little silly, I dismiss it quickly. I’ve lived in two Muslim majority countries where we celebrated Christmas without outside forces dictating the rules or grandmas getting run over by reindeer.   And as I walked away from the bus with a ‘Merry Christmas’ in my ears and on my lips, in an epiphany of sorts I was struck that my faith is so far beyond a mere ‘Merry Christmas’.

For this God I love is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He’s the bright morning star and the fairest of ten thousand. He is the babe in the manger and the King of Kings. He was there when the sea was formed and is there when the mountain goats give birth. He is Creator, Saviour, Comforter all in one. He is, and will always be, so much more than a Merry Christmas.

So today I wish you more than a Merry Christmas. While the magic of the season is limited, the reality of the living God will sustain forever.



Readers & Friends – Thank you….for reading, emailing, commenting, and, right when I’m ready to stop blogging, telling me that what I wrote helped your soul. Yesterday Communicating Across Boundaries made it to over 200,000 views in less than two years – and it’s because of you. I’ll be taking a break for a few days as my kids come in from different corners of the globe through international and domestic terminals. 


No one Wants to Eat Baby Jesus!

20121207-121706.jpgWe make sugar cookies every year. It’s a sweet, messy, sticky, yummy tradition. The after effects are sugar highs, gritty floors, and creativity to make your eyes pop. Sugar cookies are our favorite.

One year we decided to make the Nativity Scene. So proud were we as we painstakingly cut out Blessed Mary, Joseph, angels, sheep, camels, a manger, and Baby Jesus. It was amazing. The whole clan, baked with butter, sugar, and flour; frosted with blue and yellow and white and green and any other shade we could create with our liquid food colors that stained the hands and the tongue.

But…it was hard to eat this cast of characters. Oh the camels and sheep were easy. The angels? Well, we had eaten angels before so we gave in and ate those with a hot cup of evening tea. Joseph? While indeed a major and noble character in the scene, it wasn’t that hard to ingest his yellow-brown robe. But Mary? She proved difficult in her bright food-color blue, green sugar bedazzled robe, the yellow halo around her head. Finally, even she was eaten. Delicious.

But no one wanted to eat Baby Jesus!

What were we thinking? Of course no one wants to eat Baby Jesus. It seemed so wrong.

As Christmas passed and the goodies in the house were slowly eaten, we still had one lone sugar cookie in the container. Baby Jesus. What were we to do with Baby Jesus?

As I think back, there is something funny, poignant, and sacred about this. What do we do when no one wants to eat Baby Jesus? Do we shellac him? Throw him away?

But now I think the best choice would have been to eat the cookie – in fact break it in pieces and pass it around, sharing. Use it as a time to talk about how Jesus meets us in the sacred and the mundane; that he draws us into worship through cookies or through the sacrament. In my mind I go back to that time and re-write the story where we sit around the kitchen table and break off pieces of Baby Jesus, sharing the cookie no one wanted to eat. A holy moment in the middle of a simple holiday tradition, the Body of Christ broken for us.

We’ve not made the Nativity Scene for a long time – instead it’s the traditional trees and bells, candy canes and stockings. But I’m tempted every year to make that nativity scene again, to decorate Baby Jesus and break him in pieces encouraging all to partake.

Second Friday of Advent: A Place at the Nativity

My eighth grade daughter’s Language Arts teacher is an interesting bird. She’s a little scatter brained, a little flighty. Last week she divided the class into pairs. She had each pair discuss time travel. If they could go back in time, to any spot in history, where would they go and why. I’m assuming it was an elaborate writing prompt of sorts.

Adelaide and her friend Taylor went back in time and boarded the Titanic. At just the right moment there they were on deck pointing out the imminent danger, “Look out! An iceberg”! Of course they saved the day, the ship and the 1,517 lives that would have otherwise been drowned. They were the heroes. It was a noble thing to do.

And then Adelaide and Taylor went back further in time. This time they showed upmanger scene, advent, nativity scene at the shed, out behind the crammed inn, where the new-born baby Jesus was nestled in the manger. They were there with the shepherds, the wise men, the mandatory camel, the cows, the sheep and of course the angel. I had this fleeting moment of mother pride, “Ah…what a sweet idea! To go to the manger, to worship, to be a part of that history-changing, grace-birthing, life-changing Holy space.”

My moment didn’t last long!

Adelaide further explained, “That way whenever a nativity set is displayed we’d be there— a little Adelaide and a little Taylor”!

My imagination laughed out loud. Here’s the tiny shepherd boy, here’s the Mother Mary and the little Joseph always looking so very serious and tired. Here’s the three stoic wise men each bearing their obligatory oddly shaped gift. There’s the sheep, the cows and that darn camel! Oh wait … and here’s the little Adelaide and the little Taylor!

When  you’re nearly fourteen, you have an amazing capacity to make almost anything all about you. The crèche might be sacred but with just a little creativity you might squeeze into that too!

The irony, I suppose is, that it is all about her. Jesus is thrilled when my Adelaide shows up at the manger. She’s one of the reasons he came. He welcomes her there; her and Taylor too. Really we are all invited! It’s for me and it’s for you. We can all show up.

So when you put out your nativity set this year, don’t be surprised if you see a couple of extra figures. Adelaide’s the one with boots on and her fingernails painted!

When They Need a Martha, and You’re a Mary

“You need a Martha!” I declared emphatically “and I? I am a Mary!” I plopped blueberry muffins and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on my mom’s dining table.

I had come to help my parents pack for a major move — Only I was the wrong person for the job!

Disorganized, easily distracted, given to rambling and reminiscing, I was working out of my weak place. How could I help? How could I be the support that they needed? How would we ever get the work done?

There are those life moments when you don’t just feel, you know beyond doubt, that you are not the right person for the job. There are so many others, all so much more qualified that you can’t even list all of them, but you can sure list your flaws, faults, and lack of ability.

But it was me who was there. There was no Martha – just me.

I did what Mary would have done. I began with muffins and coffee, and then I was ready — ready to channel Martha with her no-nonsense organization and “get things done” attitude.

Remarkably it worked. In what could only have been grace I packed and labeled boxes, organized spaces, and threw away trash. I became Martha. I had grace for the job at hand.

There have been many times in life when I’ve been convinced that I am not the right person for the job. Others with their skills and confidence – they are the ones who should do these jobs. Me? I’m at best under qualified, at worst a complete impostor.

Except that to God I’m not. When he brings about the job, he’s got the grace for me to complete it. Qualifications matter not to him – in those moments he transforms our ability and we sit back in amazement. He goes abundantly beyond, and we respond with open-mouthed awe and humility.

If we feel unqualified, we’re in good company. Our Biblical models are quite the folks. We’ve got a prostitute with a past in Rahab; a teenage mom in Mary; a minority queen in Esther; a pregnant woman your grandma’s age in Elizabeth…..they were all completely unsuited for the jobs at hand. And in their unsuitability God’s grace was given to them in mighty measure, poured out, shaken together and running over.

Today I will be filling out paper work that could take me in a different direction career-wise. Everything in me screams “I’m not qualified!” With every word I type I’ll be tempted to hit delete, tempted to shout “I’m a Mary and you need a Martha!” But there’s a compelling voice inside that says move forward and until doors slam shut in my face, I will move – even if it be ever so slowly. I’ll sip my coffee, eat my muffin, and beg for grace.

So when they need a Martha and you’re a Mary; or they need a David and you’re a Jonathan – take a deep breath, step back, and move forward with coffee, muffins, and Grace.