Christmas is a not a disposable feast. Though, admittedly, if Christmas is no more than a holiday, it’s already on the curb and cast out of mind. But Christmas is a mystery of our faith, which means that its significance can never be fully fathomed by us. That’s why we celebrate the feast, for eight days, each year. The mystery grows deeper as we grow wiser.
This feast of Mary entered the orbit of Christmas very early in the church’s life. Like so much of our Marian piety, it came about through conflict over the identity of Christ, not Mary. The heretic priest Arius had denied the divinity of Christ. Quoting constantly from the scriptures, his followers considered Christ to be superhuman, far above us, yet equally far below God. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the church gave Mary the title “Mother of God” or Theotokos (God-bearer, in the Greek) to affirm that Jesus, from the first moment of his human existence, even in the womb of the Virgin, was truly God and truly man. Hence the maternal title for Mary.
God entered the world not to return it to its origin but rather to recreate it, to lift the world into divine life.
This New Year’s feast does more than prolong the celebration of Christmas. It mines more depth from the mystery. If Christ came only to justify us before God, then Christ could have appeared among us as a grown man, ready to die. But the Word is made flesh, the word grows in wisdom and grace among us, because Christ comes to sanctify us, to raise fallen humanity into the heights of his own divinity. The western church calls this our sanctification. The eastern, our divinization. Both far outpace mere justification.
An emphasis upon justification over sanctification entered the church’s history as a way to ease sore consciences, never sure if they had done enough to merit salvation. It rightly proclaimed, “Remember, the work is first of all Christ’s.” Yet, five centuries later, perhaps it’s time to ask if justification hasn’t been whittled down to a shallow smugness about ourselves, expressed something like this: “While I may not be perfect, I’m perfectly acceptable for heaven.” Salvation becomes one more thing that we considered to be owed to us.
But Christmas is not a disposable feast! We don’t posit this mystery as nothing more than a preliminary to the passion. God entered the world not to return it to its origin but rather to recreate it, to lift the world into divine life.
We celebrate the Virgin Mary because in her, the mystery of Christmas saturates creation.
This is why the perpetual virginity of Mary and her Immaculate Conception matter so much to the church. It’s not a question of creating, in our imaginations, a receptacle worthy of Christ. Nothing on earth is worthy of Christ, and Mary would not have been found worthy, without the grace of Christ.
No, we celebrate the Virgin Mary because in her, the mystery of Christmas saturates creation. The God-child brings divinity to earth, and, in the Virgin, one small portion of the created world, is lifted entirely, without shadow or stain of sin, into God’s own life.
If you come at the mystery of Christmas from our side, you start in sin, and sin will slant your understanding. Then, Mary is a virgin because women are inherently impure. Once the savior is born, she can lay aside virginity. She and her purity are no longer needed. But to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary is to objectify her, to make her a disposable instrument. Sadly, we continue to see the very same attitude towards women today. They exist for men, for the purposes of men; they are disposable.
If you come at the mystery of Christmas from heaven, as Christ did, you will do so much more than justify the world, to end its alienation from God. You will give it a share in the life you yourself had with the Father. What was created with a natural destiny is recreated with a supernatural one. Nothing save sin itself can diminish this gift. And in the Virgin, in one human being, nothing did. By the prevenient grace of Christ she never knew sin. In the sustaining grace of Christ she remains the ever-fruitful Virgin, the new Eve for those who are born, not of the flesh but of the Spirit. Her feast opens the New Year because her flesh and her faith—she is not passive; she acts—help to form a new creation.
Christmas is not a disposable feast. It doesn’t just set the stage for the passion. That night in a Bethlehem manger, a new creation came to birth. A new Adam and a new Eve once again stood in unity of purpose with ox and ass.
Mary is not disposable. She doesn’t preserve her Son from the taint of woman, so often identified with the stain of sin. Christ is the champion. He preserves himself from sin by destroying sin. As a woman, Mary alone is the perfect fruit of his new creation, sprung from this sacred, ever-green seed of heaven, which was planted in the dead of winter.