Today, August 15, is an ancient feast day that remembers the end of the earthly life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As such, it represents a wonderful opportunity to eulogize this incredible woman, whom God chose to be the human agent of the Incarnation — the mother of the Son of God — and who said ‘Yes’ to her harrowing vocation.
Because of her role in the Incarnation, which is a paradox bringing together humanity and divinity (finitude and infinity, the material and the spiritual), Mary herself is also wrapped up in paradox. She is a simple human woman and yet is hymned as the “Queen of Heaven” and as Theotokos, ‘she who gave birth to God.’ The traditional icon motif known as “The Sign of the Theotokos” shows this paradox beautifully. It features Mary, with her hands outstretched in prayer; but her torso is superimposed with a mandorla, a shape signifying that what is inside it is a spiritual truth and not something that could be seen with the eyes; in this mandorla we see Jesus, surrounded by the stars and skies. So, this image we shows us the universe turned inside out: If God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” here we see God “living and moving and having being” in the human woman, Mary.
But the paradox of Mary is more than just one of metaphysics and ancient ways of interpreting the Incarnation. It is, at its heart, about us too, as there is also a paradox of family: her biological birthing of Jesus births our own adoption as children of God. Her biological family helps to create our own adoptive family. This is the theme of the Epistle reading appointed for today’s feast. Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, … so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7)
As the ancient theological maxim has it, Everything Jesus is by nature we become by grace. Paul’s articulation here of our adoption as children, as heirs, of God is of the the most profound expressions in the New Testament of this principle. For what is adoption if not the creation of family by grace? This is the major theme of Kelley Nikondeha’s wonderful book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, in which she explores this biblical theme through her unique lens as both an adopted child and adoptive mother. She writes, of the Incarnation: “God created belonging through both biological and adoptive means. … Jesus possesses Mary’s biology and Joseph’s genealogy, all the while carrying God’s progeny into the world — in the fullest expression of family.” She concludes:
Anyone can be your family if you choose to live with fidelity toward one another. …Every time the family gathers at the breakfast table, the counter-narrative of non-biological belonging is incarnated. We are connected by more than genes; we are relatives by daily fidelity and even deeper mysteries.
In Christ, who was in his earthly life adopted by Joseph, we who follow him, live out this experience of family by grace as we are adopted as children and co-heirs of God. From ancient times, Christians have experienced that this places us in relationship to Mary too, within the Communion of Saints,* for we are the beloved siblings of her son. And so in addition to the Sign of the Theotokos icon, there is another icon, known as the Protective Veil of the Theotokos, in which Mary also has her hands outstretched in prayer, but this time over the whole community of faith.
Throughout Christian history, Mary has been celebrated as the ideal exemplar of faithfulness. She said yes to her unique and difficult vocation, which saw her life threatened, her special claim to her son’s affection challenged, and her heart broken at Calvary. But she remained steadfast in faith throughout her earthly life, and because of her faithfulness in all of these things, she, the biological mother of Jesus, has become paradoxically, the adoptive mother of all the faithful.
Holy Mother Mary, pray for us.
* Note: If you come from a tradition that has not emphasized the intercession of Saints, here is a quick explanation: From the earliest times, Christians found that the faithful from their communities who died continued to be somehow present with them. This is a natural consequence of the Christian belief that those who have died continue to be alive in God. If we have no problem asking for our trusted family and friends to pray for us, and if we believe that the faithful departed are indeed alive in God, then we can also ask them to intercede for us.