In view of Mary’s special role as the mother of Jesus, she received a special name in the early church. Theotokos combines two Greek words:
- Theo which means God, and
- tokos which means one who bears or who gives birth.
So Theotokos means “God bearer,” for Mary quite literally brought God into the world by giving birth to Jesus. By about the 5th century, artists began painting Mary as the God-Bearer, the Theotokos.
Theotokos paintings like the icon in this article always depict Mary holding the Christ child in her arms, both most often dressed in richly coloured robes and set against a fairly simple background. In the Byzantine style of the middle ages, their features are somewhat elongated, and Mary’s expression seems warm, compassionate, and maybe even a little sad. Also typical of Theotokos paintings, Jesus has an adult face and wears adult robes. Taken literally, it may seem rather odd, with a life-sized Mary holding a miniature adult Jesus.
But there’s a theological point to this: while Mary carries Jesus in her arms, he is also the eternal Christ, present before the ages, who would one day give his life for the world. He is both human and divine, both newborn to the world and present from the beginning of creation, both finite human being and Mighty God. To express all of that in Theotokos paintings, the Mother of God does not hold an ordinary-looking baby wrapped in a blanket. Jesus with an adult face and wearing adult clothing reminds us that Mary is Theotokos, bearing God into our ordinary world.
In The Godbearing Life, authors Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster say that youth ministry isn’t all about planning activities and keeping youth busy–it’s about living a God-bearing life. And what they say about youth ministry applies to all of us. Our lives are not meant to focus on a superficial busyness.
We too are called to be God-bearers–not literally by physically giving birth to Jesus as Mary did, but by bearing God into the circumstances of our ordinary world.
How can this be? we might ask, just as Mary asked the angel. How can we possibly bear God into our families and friendships, into our neighbourhoods and churches, and into the world at large?
For Mary, being a God-bearer began with God’s blessing. As the angel said to her,
Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28)
At first Mary was troubled, but that didn’t stop her from saying yes to God:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)
For us too, being a God-bearer begins with God’s blessing. By sending Jesus into the world, God also says to us: “Greetings! You are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
We don’t have to go find ourselves as if there’s a piece missing. We don’t have to follow the crowd, or play the rebel to be “somebody.” However wonderful or ordinary we might think of ourselves, whatever we’ve done in the past, whatever triumphs or trials we’ve experienced, God enters our lives with affirmation, hope, and blessing: The Lord is with you. You are God’s favoured one!
We may still have questions, we may still have things that trouble us, but like Mary we can still say yes to God. We don’t need to start scheming to make it so. We don’t need to manipulate things to make God’s will happen. Like Mary, we can let God be God, and respond with a joyful yes as God’s servants. Then we live into that yes as God-bearers in a broken world, bringing the blessing that we have received wherever we go:
God’s favour is for all people. The Lord is with you.
So this year I’m praying for a “Mary” Christmas for myself and for all of us. Hold on to God’s favour. Ask your troubling questions. Say yes to God, and bear the extraordinary, merciful, and eternal God into our ordinary, beautiful, yet broken world.
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