Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Most people probably think of birth and death as totally different and unrelated things. We often associate one with great joy and hope, while the other is simply a sorrowful ending. If we think simply in terms of our experience in this world of corruption, then it makes sense to view them in that way. But if we place them in the context of what our Lord has accomplished through His Cross, then we will understand them very differently.
Today we continue to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos even as we anticipate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross later this week. That we magnify the Cross should not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Christianity, for it is through His great Self-Offering on the Cross that our Savior took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and thus conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day. His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation.
The importance of the birth of the Virgin Mary may be a bit more obscure, however. Perhaps the place to begin understanding the importance of her birth is with our first parents, Adam and Eve. By choosing to satisfy their own prideful desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become ever more like God in holiness, they ushered in the cycle of birth and death that has enslaved every generation. But instead of leaving us captive to corruption, God prepared across the centuries to restore us to the ancient dignity for which He created us in the first place. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, longed for a child. God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem. That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
We call Mary “Theotokos” precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God. We call her the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam in Whom our calling to become like God in holiness is fulfilled. As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, making it possible for us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel. The New Eve said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who conquered death.
As St. Paul knew, Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that we become through Him “a new creation.” The references to Adam and Eve are especially fitting in this context, for we cannot understand the gravity of our healing if we do not recognize the depths of our sickness. Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised, St. Paul saw that corrupt humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, was enslaved to death, the wages of sin. Our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us. No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn. We need to move from death to life. That is why Christ offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross: in order to raise us up from the tomb as participants in the eternal life for which He breathed life into us in the first place. He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it—and all of us-- as a new creation.
The good news of Christ’s salvation is so glorious that we do not want to leave out any dimension of how He has set right all that has gone wrong with humanity across the ages. We want to tell this beautiful story in full detail--past, present and future. Since He had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother. At one level, that is simply a fact of what it means to be human. But as we know from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life. He had to have a mother who chose to obey God’s calling to her, even though she could not have possibly known all that her agreement would mean. Mary did not know how a virgin could become pregnant and give birth while remaining a virgin. Well, who does? But her humble, trusting obedience played a crucial role in how salvation came into the world. He could not have been the God-Man unless he was born of a woman. He could not have become the Second Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve.
The Theotokos’ birth resonates beautifully with so much Old Testament imagery. She was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple whose barrenness represents the pain and despair of a world enslaved to sin and death. Joachim and Anna could not overcome childlessness by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave by our own power. God’s blessing on their intimate union in conceiving the Theotokos is a sign of the healing of the frustrations of the relationship between man and woman, which also result from the rebellion of our first parents. Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and extend to all with faith in Him. The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of those promises. We cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
If we want the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him, we need only look to her as the first and model Christian who, like St. Paul, did not “glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise of others at the time. She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes. As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) But it was precisely through the horror of the Cross that the Savior brought the world into the new day of the Kingdom. He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals by which we can try make ourselves worthy or respectable, but by enabling us to become participants in the great victory He won through His crucifixion and resurrection.
In order to accept that high calling, we must be willing to die to all that holds us back from playing our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the new creation. Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient. Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey. In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else. We should remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing. We should welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness. In other words, we should move in Him from death to life. The point is not to become conventionally religious or morally impressive, but to embrace the salvation He worked on the Cross that extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world. For His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.