God bearers in the world

March marks the celebration of the Annunciation of the Lord. The feast is fixed on 25 March in tandem with 25 December to link Mary’s ‘yes’ to the Nativity of the Lord nine months later (Luke 1.26–38). Early Christians spoke of Mary’s role in salvation history in many ways, one of which was to ascribe to her the title Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. Theotokos, a compound of the words Theos (God) and tokos (bearer), means ‘God-bearer’, that is the one who bore God (in the person of Jesus) in the world. 

Yet Mary’s ‘yes’ to God at the Annunciation was hardly a one-off in terms of God-bearing. As Theotokos, she had much more to bear than her pregnancy and the birthing of Jesus during her time on earth. She had also to bear the consequences that a ‘yes’ to God entails, that is a yearning to follow God’s will without seeing precisely where one shall be led except, as Paul says, as ‘in a mirror dimly’ (1 Corinthians 3.12) because ‘we walk by faith and not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5.7). In his recounting of the Nativity of the Lord, Luke goes on to say that after experiencing the signs and wonders of Jesus’ birth, ‘she treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’ (2.19). But Mary’s God-bearing had only begun.

Recall John’s Gospel and a wedding at Cana (John 2.1–11) when Jesus had long come to his maturity. Mary, Jesus and some of his disciples were wedding guests. It must have been quite the party because the wine ran out. Mary, the first to say ‘yes’ to God in Jesus, is his disciple par excellence. It is fitting that Mary should present Jesus with the problem that day about the wine because she believes Jesus can help. Mary does not tell Jesus what to do. As she trusted God’s word in terms of Gabriel’s message, so too she trusts her Son. The best wine, John tells us, was served last, when the stewards had followed Mary’s order: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Mary to do the same thing a few years later, when as Luke’s Gospel reports, Jesus agonised over his earthly fate (22.42–44). A despondent Jesus prayed to God to let the cup of suffering on the Cross pass him by, but in the end, Jesus girt his loins: ‘not my will, but thine, be done’. How hard that must have been for Mary: to take the advice she had given to the stewards at Cana in accepting Jesus’ acquiescence to God’s will for him. How hard it must have been to look up at her holy Child on a gibbet, and to hear him say, ‘Behold thy son’. Mary is never more the Theotokos than when bearing the burden of her son’s Atonement in hope of his Resurrection.

We find her not long after at prayer in the Upper Room at Pentecost (Acts 1.12–2.4). Where else would we expect to find the God-bearer except at that moment in salvation history when the Holy Spirit would make theotokoi, that is God-bearers, of us all? For it is the Holy Spirit who inspires us to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8). It is our acquiescence to God in Baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to bear witness to Jesus in the world. We would do well to imitate Mary’s ‘yes’, but we cannot forget that though we bear witness to the Resurrection, we do so through to the experience of the Atonement. We accept God’s will, even if we do not understand it fully, even if it is difficult to comprehend, and we seek to do what he tells us because, like Mary, ours is ever a ‘yes’ to God.

Our purpose in recalling Mary’s Annunciation every March is not just to celebrate the generosity of God in the advent of the Christ, but to imitate the ‘yes’ of the Theotokos in bearing Christ to all the world, proclaiming signs and wonders, presenting needs to God in prayer and witnessing to him under the power of the Holy Spirit. It will rarely be easy, for ours is a call to the hopeless and forlorn, to those who long to see signs and wonders in the goodness and generosity of others. Disciples like you and me may see dimly, nevertheless, we follow after the Lord when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. In so doing, we are God-bearers ourselves, theotokoi, whose ‘yes’ to God echoes Mary’s – and brings salvation history just a wee bit closer to fulfilment.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull is an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s, and Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.