My children shower me with affection, so I have no real reason to go fishing for more love. But I do it anyway. The problem is, when I ask if they love Mommy or Daddy more, they always insist that they love us equally. Sometimes I load the question the way political pollsters do: “Daddy has been working late a lot and sometimes yells at you. Mommy is a great snuggler, makes all your favorite meals, and taught you to ride a bike recently. Who do you love more, Mommy or Daddy?”
But even then, the kids insist they love us both the same. It’s touching. And also infuriating.
Even worse is what they say when I sometimes fight for a World’s Greatest Mom trophy. (Don’t judge; we all do it.) I thought there was only one answer to the question “Who’s the best mother in the world?” And that the answer would always be “You, Mom!” Oh, no. When I ask my kids, “Who’s the best momma in the whole world?” they always reply, “Mary, mother of God!”
They’re careful to insist that I’m absolutely, positively, a solid second. Which isn’t bad, I guess. After all, Mary is—literally—the most blessed woman in the history of the world. We Christians know this because God chose her as the one woman throughout all space and time to deliver humanity its Savior. And if you needed even more proof, when God chose her—which was probably the biggest surprise any human being has ever experienced—she responded with a brief moment of confusion followed by serene, lifelong acceptance. Most of us struggle to achieve serene acceptance at the checkout line at the grocery store. So, yes, she’s the best mother.
And her unique role in the history of humanity is never more apparent than at Christmas.
We moderns have a variety of beliefs about Jesus’s birth. Some of us confidently accept every last miracle richly detailed in the Gospels. Others pick and choose—they’ll accept that God became flesh and dwelt among us for our salvation, but the star guiding the Wise Men is a bridge too far. Others reject the story in toto.
In 2003, the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof mocked the Virgin Birth in a column published on the Roman Catholic feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven (just to ensure the maximum amount of implied insult). Kristof was worried because 83 percent of Americans say they believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. He said this belief separates us from the rest of the industrialized world—and he didn’t mean it in a good way.
“The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time,” Kristof wrote, remarking with horror that the percentage of Americans who believe in the Virgin Birth had actually risen five points since the question was last polled. “I’m troubled by the way the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering,” he tsked. Though he didn’t specify when, exactly, Christians had not believed in the Virgin Birth. Which was first mentioned, you know, in the Bible.
Kristof wondered why more Christians couldn’t be like his Presbyterian grandfather, who rejected the notion of the Virgin Birth. Which is an odd stance, since you can’t really be a Christian without believing in Christianity. But not as odd as Kristof’s follow-up claim: that the “evidence for the Virgin Birth” was “shaky.” If you’re looking for forensic proof of the deepest mysteries of God’s love, then you’re in the wrong business.
It’s easy to understand why our modern cultural elites struggle with the science of the Virgin Birth, the heavens filling with angels, and the star of the Magi. Yet if you think about it, these miracles aren’t even close to being the most difficult things to believe about the Nativity story.
The deepest mystery of Christmas isn’t how Jesus was conceived and born—it’s why. Why would almighty God care so much about losers like us that he would humble himself to take on human flesh and enter humanity at such a low station?
As intellectually and technologically advanced as we’ve become, this incarnation of God in the person of Christ Jesus is just as unfathomable to us as it was to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Wise Men two thousand years ago.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a doctor of the Church, held that there were three miracles present in the Christmas story. The first was that God would be joined with human flesh. The second was that He would be born of a virgin. The third was that Mary would have such profound faith that she would accept God’s word. Sure, she asked a few questions. But once those were answered, she believed.
And that’s why, in the “who’s your favorite (non-Jesus) person in the Bible or church history” parlor game, Mary is a fan favorite. (She’s way ahead of every other figure, as evidenced by all the art and hymnody surrounding her story—not to mention all the children named Mary, Miriam, Marilyn, and—ahem—Mollie.) In the midst of a hectic life in a hectic world, her incorruptible faith can make her seem nearly impossible to relate to. But she was meant not just for Jesus—she was meant for all of us.
Jesus himself holds her up as a model for all Christians. At one point in the Gospel of Luke, a woman listening to Jesus in a crowd cries out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!” He says, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
On first reading, this might sound like a slight. But it’s not. Jesus isn’t saying, “Sure, but . . .” He’s saying “Yes, and . . .” That the Virgin Mary bore Jesus and nursed him and raised him is beautiful and holy. And yet it pales in comparison to Mary’s joyful confession that she is the Lord’s handmaiden and that she will follow his Word wherever it leads.
She is blessed simply because she was chosen to be the mother of God—but she is a blessing because of the way she made that choice. She said yes, not just to Gabriel’s unprecedented invitation, but to everything God asked of her. She assented completely, giving over not just her body—which, let’s face it, is asking a lot—but also her heart.
Somehow, it’s not hard to imagine a New York Times columnist echoing the complaint that Christianity—and especially Catholic Christianity—is inherently sexist, what with having little, if any, place for women. As in her day, Mary’s story is met with suspicion, even scorn. Yet it was a lowly woman whom God entrusted with the most important role of all—carrying himself for forty long weeks and pushing him into the world. “For unto us a child is born” would not have been possible without Mary’s womanhood.
Many of my fellow Protestants are a bit weirded out by Marian devotion among Roman Catholics—the May crowning, the statues, the rosary. And certainly some traditions have made Mary into an object of worship, a co-redeemer, and one to whom prayers are offered. But just because some go too far doesn’t mean any of us should ignore Mary. We remember and honor her so that we may remember how God chose to be with us; we remember and honor her by seeking to make her words our own: “I am the Lord’s servant/maidservant! I have heard Your Word, O Lord, and can only say, Amen!”
Through Mary, God gave Jesus to all mankind. And Jesus gave her back to all mankind as he hung on the cross, telling John—and all of us—“Behold your mother!” Mary isn’t God. She’s not above God, she’s not equal to God. But given her starring role in the Nativity story, we can all agree that she is even more than just the mother of God. She is the model for, and mother of, all Christians.
Martin Luther, the reformer and pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, gave a Christmas sermon in 1529 saying of Mary that she “is the mother of Jesus and the mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees. . . . If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother.”
My children agree. And they’re right. Mary is mother to us all—and she’s the best mother in the whole world.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. This piece is an adapted excerpt from The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays.