In considering images that help us think about the intersection of Christian faith and scientific thinking in a way that is particularly appropriate for Christmas, it seemed right to focus on the central miracle and mystery of the incarnation. After all, that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ is not only a defining tenet of Christian belief, but also a stumbling block to many who can not account for such a thing happening in a world they recognize as largely described (or “governed”) by materialistic laws. Can not the miracle of Christ’s birth—specifically the claim that He was born of a virgin mother—be accounted for in several other ways, none of which require the suspension of those ordinary rules of nature? Is not the miracle of Christmas only a fairy tale that conveniently covers the shame of an un-wed teenage mother? And why do Christians persist in talking about this or any “miracle” when simpler, more earthly explanations (or denials) are at hand?
Part of the “answer” to the mystery of the incarnation lies in realizing that those three are not really the right questions to be asking, for they focus merely on means rather than meaning. Rather, we should recognize that the miracles of Jesus’ life—beginning with His conception and birth through Mary—are not only or most miraculous in their physical, material aspects, but as demonstrations of His identity and calling, and ultimately of our own as those who bear His image. In contrast to the manger scene familiar to most Western Christian eyes, the image pictured above is an Orthodox icon of Mary as the Theotokos, the birth-giver of God, and it offers to us an alternate way of picturing the central mystery of Christmas that Orthodox priest, curator and art historian David Goa has described as “the Church’s great image of the human vocation and call to us to claim that vocation—who we are and how we are to then live all in one simple image of our common human experience.” For, without setting aside or attempting to explain the material aspects of the virgin birth, the continuing miracle of the incarnation is that it is as much a present reality in the lives of Christians today as it was for Mary or for those in the early Church.
In a sermon dedicating another Theotokos icon, Goa warned of the danger of living in a time when Christmas imagery has become too-familiar, "that we make a fetish of virginity and the birth of a Palestinian baby; his mother and would be father; that we fill the emptiness with the glamour offered from all quarters; that we turn this feast into a family occasion: freeze frame our familial affection.” Against those temptations, this icon does not “naturalize” Christ as a perfect human baby born in a manger, but reminds us that even within Mary’s body—and though setting aside his power for a time as a fully human infant—Christ remained the Lord of all; thus, He is shown seated on the throne of the heavens and with a scroll in His hand, emblems of both arenas of His revelation of Himself. Yet far from minimizing Mary’s role, this iconography of the fullness of God emphasizes her as a model of the way every Christian can and does make a place and a way for the Lord, as well.
In speaking of the icon, Goa reminds us that, “the Incarnation is a revelation of who we are. It is a retelling of Genesis chapter 3 and that is why, in this season of retelling this story, we enter a dangerous time.” It is dangerous not just because we might miss the meaning of it, but because with every re-telling of our commissioning as image-bearers, sent to cultivate and create in God’s name, we are tempted to exert our own desires, to exercise dominion for our own sake, in our own names. Goa continues, “The mystery of the Incarnation of God in Christ is our mystery, a revelation of our created nature and a call to its fullness, . . . [thus] the Icon of the Virgin and Child is . . . the Icon of the Human Vocation. It reveals to us our capacity as persons, as women, men and children.” That vocation certainly includes seeking to understand the created world and its ways via careful and faithful study, just as it includes seeking the Lord through the scriptures and traditions of the Church; but it is most fully expressed when we use both of those resources to ease the pain and injustice we find (and have even caused, ourselves) in the world around us.
Finally, Goa notes that, “When Orthodox Christians around the world enter the church, they bring a candle to this icon and, bowing in a prayer of gratitude to God who clothed them in flesh, ask that they, too, like the Theotokos, may be open to be a birth giver of divine love in a fractured and suffering world.” Motivated by confidence that the Lord who created the cosmos is the same Lord who was born of Mary in Bethlehem, may all of us who struggle to understand the way God continues to reveal Himself in creation and in the scriptures remember that the most vital and present revelation of His love occurs by the Spirit within us, for the benefit of others. May we recognize that the miracle of Christmas was not that God chose to break the rules of biology, but that He makes a way for all of us “who were far off” to join in His reconciling, redemptive work by likewise bringing—being—the Body of Christ unto the world. May we, then, join with Mary Theotokos in her song of praise and thanksgiving that we have been called to share in the mystery of the incarnation of our God and Savior.
Dr. David J. Goa is the Director of the Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion & Public Life at the University of Alberta. All quotes were taken from Goa’s “Our Common Calling: The Icon of the Human Vocation,” given at Bethel Lutheran Church in December 2007. More on the iconography of the Theotokos and this image may be found here.