Dr. Daniel Vestal: Christ Bearer: An Advent Reflection

Growing up in a Baptist church I never appreciated the role that Mary played in the grand story of redemption. I valued John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way for Jesus and I valued Paul, the great interpreter to the Gentiles. I understood the role of the apostles Peter and John as well as early church figures described in Acts. But I didn't see Mary as that crucial and important. It was only as I came to appreciate the contemplative and sacramental dimension to the Gospel that Mary emerged as an inspiring and iconic figure.

We know relatively little about her life, and Scripture gives us only a few of her spoken words. But if one interprets the words of Jesus on the cross to the beloved disciple, "Behold your mother" and to Mary, "Behold your son" as more than an historical statement, then Mary is not only the mother of the son of God. She is also the mother of the church. And as such she is a model of discipleship.

God chose to enter into our world as a human being through a young Jewish woman named Mary. And what a young woman she was. Mary is not known to us for her beauty, wit or charm, but for her humility, poverty and faith. She receives into her very body the miracle and mystery of a virginal conception. And she receives into her spirit the word and will of God spoken to her by the angel Gabriel.

Though she is often amazed at what is happening to her and through her, she believes. She worships. She treasures the truth in her heart. She is the first person to receive Christ into her very self. She is the first person to hear his name and to hear that the one named Jesus will be called "Son of the Most High." She is the first person to receive the good news that "the Lord God will give Him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end."

Mary is the first person to hear that nothing is impossible with God and then respond with the beautiful prayer of submission, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." She is the first person in whom Christ is formed. She is the first person to give Christ to the world for its salvation.

In many ways Mary remains a hidden person. She is called "blessed" and is told that she has found favor, but it is because of what will come upon her and what will come from her. And that is why she is so amazing. She welcomes the obscurity and simplicity so that she might be the "Christ bearer."

So it should be with us. We are offered the opportunity for Christ to be born in us and to live in us-not in the same way as with Mary but in a way just as real and just as life-changing. And the offer itself is a surprise. It comes to us as a wonder - a beautiful and amazing possibility. We can be "Christ bearer" to the world.

Each of us confronts the decision whether we will say "yes" or "no" or "not yet" or "that's impossible" or "I'm afraid of what this can mean." Mary shows us the way by modeling how to receive Christ and continue to receive Christ. We can say "yes" to the surprise, "yes" to the mystery, "yes" to the word of the Lord, but most of all, "yes" to the One who wants to make his home within us.

Thomas Merton is helpful:

"The problem of forming Christ in us is not to be solved merely by our own efforts. It is not a matter of studying the Gospels and then working to put our ideas into practice, although we should try to do that too; but always under the guidance of grace, in complete subjection to God's grace. For if we depend on our own ideas and our own judgment and our own efforts to reproduce the life of Christ we will only act out some kind of pious charade which will ultimately scare everybody we meet because it will be stiff and artificial and so dead...Christ forms himself by grace and faith in the souls of all who love Him, and at the same time He draws them all together in Himself to make them one in Him."

No two people receive the presence of Christ in exactly the same way. Some of us are extroverted, while others are introverted. Some of us are rational; others are more emotional. Each of us perceives and processes reality in ways unique to our personality. And it is a mistake to prescribe one form, one method, one rule or one ritual that enables all to receive Christ in the same way.

But this truth is clear: the presence of Christ is a gift. It is offered freely to anyone and to everyone. The living and abiding presence of Christ is a gift. Status is not important. Past religious performance is not necessary. Worthiness is not the issue. Perfection is not required. What is required is a receptive and open heart. Like Mary we must have a simple capacity to trust and accept what is offered. And what is offered is nothing less than the living Christ.

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given.

So God imparts to human hearts 

The blessings of His heaven. 

No ear may hear His coming 

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive Him still 

The dear Christ enters in.

_ Daniel Vestal __  is executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving since 1996. _

[Taken with permission from the website of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Dec. 8, 2010]