There’s a cartoon being passed around this week in social media. Three women are riding away from the viewer on donkeys, and there is a man walking alongside the third woman, who is holding an infant. The women obviously are Middle Eastern. And on the rear end of each donkey is a bumper sticker. The first one says to the third woman and her companion, “Well! If it isn’t Joseph and Mary…” Her donkey has a bumper sticker that reads, “Our son is an honor student.” The second bumper sticker says, “Our son is in medical school.” And the third one says, “Our son is God.” This is a very clever riff on the long-held stereotype of a Jewish mother.
The cartoon makes clear that the third woman is Mary, the mother of the baby whose birth we celebrated just a few days ago. At least, Mary is the only woman whose son actually IS God come to dwell among us. But I daresay no one had, as yet, worked out exactly WHO this newborn baby, Jesus of Nazareth, would turn out to be.
In a way, the baby Jesus was like all newborn children in this regard: all promise, giving their parents much to hope for in the child, much to ponder about the miracle of life and how a single new child teaches us about love and how that child and that love will change our world.
This is where we left Mary just a few days ago. She and Joseph and the baby had been visited by shepherds telling of angels. The shepherds had shared the message that this child was the Messiah, the Christ child. Our Christmas gospel lesson said that Mary treasured these angelic words and pondered them in her heart. Privately. No donkey bumper stickers for the Holy Family!
In my mind—solely Jo Belser’s theology, you understand—I think of today’s gospel lesson as the end product of Mary’s pondering. Mary’s Word, so to speak. Mary’s understanding of just who this child had been, and was, whom she had birthed and raised and watched die and who reappeared in the flesh after he has been executed. Who had disappeared from sight but whose Spirit undeniably lived on in her and in the many who came to call themselves Jesus followers.
This isn’t so farfetched a theory. Many believe that Mary lived out her days in Ephesus, the community from which and for which the Gospel of John was written. And here is what the Ephesus Christians had worked out by the end of the third century after Jesus’ life: that this fully human child was and is the Christ, the Word of God made flesh. That this child’s beginning was not connected with his physical being, but being God, he had existed from before time.
“In the beginning was the Word”—the very God agent who created all that is in our world. The Word, you understand, is not like our spoken Word, but more like the breath that God spoke to create all that is, the God-essence at the core of all things. And this Word was both with God and was God. This baby was, in his God-essence, responsible for the creation of our world, the animating spark of each of our lives.
Can you see the beginnings of the Trinity being worked out here? A human explanation of how a person—this newborn baby in a manger—could be both human and God? This is Mary’s Word: that what has come into being in Jesus was the very essence, the life and light, of all humanity. This Word is the light that shines in and overcomes the darkness, just as this Word had dispelled chaos at the creation of time. This is Mary’s Word. God’s Word. The Word that is God.
There then had to be an explanation to dispel the notion that John the Baptist was the Messiah. Mary’s Word is that John came into the world to point toward the light, the Word of God, who is Jesus the Christ. This isn’t so different from Luke’s Word, that John was a prophet, a cousin of Jesus’, who came to prepare the way for Jesus.
Why was this disclaimer about John the Baptist necessary? Ray Isaacs tells me that even today, in places around the world there are some communities who worship John the Baptist as the Messiah. Not so, says today’s gospel.
The powerful testimony of our lesson today is that God came among us, and we rejected him, some of us. But those who do not reject this Christ child, we too can become sons of God. This is the “born anew” that Jesus himself later told Nicodemus he needed to do: believe in the Word and be born of God. And then allow the Light of Life that is Jesus to transform your very life.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Mary’s Word. God’s Word. Our Word, if we but accept and live in the Light.