As the days grow shorter, darker, and colder, our longing for the light intensifies. In these lengthened days of winter, the Advent calendar window opened to reveal Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who carried light into the world.
When I was a child, I always loved unwrapping the crèche. It gave me special joy to find Mary, swaddled in last year's newspaper, resting in the box. I would tenderly free her, cradle the blue-clad figurine, give her a secret Protestant kiss, and place her in the manger. Her serene motherhood embodied holiness.
Over the years, Mary has not ceased being a compelling biblical hero to me -- and I have learned how this woman reflects the hopes and longings of Christians through many ages. To me, and her countless admirers, she has been -- among other images -- the pious mother, the face of the divine feminine, a faithful disciple, and the even the queen of heaven.
Her glory, however, is almost always connected to her maternity. Mary is Mary because of Jesus. But before she was Jesus' mother, Mary was a prophet. In some ways, her story is like that of Isaiah, a person of humble circumstance who lived at a time of political turmoil and military oppression. An angel appears to the future prophet, who feels inadequate to bear God's word to the people. Yet, eventually, both Isaiah and Mary relent and submit to the Spirit's call on their lives.
And, long before the cry of the infant in the manger, Mary proclaims the in-breaking of God's reign, the political justice that will be born into the world:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever (Luke 1:46-55).
Yes, Mary is Mary because of Jesus. But Jesus was born Jesus because of Mary, who responded to the call of God, as did Isaiah of old: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord." Without her, the light would not have shined in the darkness.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).