When you look at yourself in the mirror who do you see? That may seem a strange question to ask, because obviously you see yourself… but if you look deeper and closer who else do you see? One of the privileges of being a parish priest is the opportunity to be invited into people’s homes, and one of the things that I like to do, when I am visiting is to look at the photos that people have on display in their lounge rooms. It is always interesting to see the family resemblances passed on from one generation to another.
So, when you look in the mirror, or at photographs of yourself and your family, who do you see? Perhaps you see in your own face one or both of your parents, or your grandparents. If you have children and grandchildren, perhaps you see in them certain physical characteristics that remind you of yourself. Every now and again a conversation begins in our family about which of our boys look most like their father, and which (thankfully for them) look most like their mother. The sharing of our DNA down family lines – for good and for bad – expresses itself most immediately for us, in the physical characteristics that are passed on from one generation to another. It might be hair colour, or eyes, or a particular nose or chin. Thanks to our parents, and their parents before them we may always have been destined to be tall or short, to have certain physical weaknesses and particular strengths. We can say that we know something of who we are by the likeness that we share with members of our family.
In my imagination I wonder who Jesus saw when he looked in the mirror. Some months ago now, when I spent a morning with our Mother’s Union I showed them a whole series of pictures of how Jesus has been depicted in art over the centuries. We looked at pictures of Jesus depicted as an African chief, and an Asian teacher, and a Chinese farmer. We studied different pictures of him angry, and laughing and various scenes of him in ministry creatively drawn and painted by artists from around the world. None of those artists were really claiming that he was Chinese, or African but the point that the Mother’s Union and I reflected on together was that he wasn’t Australian either.
The kinds of images that we were brought up with in our childhood of the blonde haired, blue eyed and fair skinned Jesus are as unlikely to be accurate depictions of him as any of the others that I have described. The truth is that we have no idea what Jesus really looked like, but we do know that his Jewish ancestry back means that he was extremely unlikely to see blonde hair and blue eyes staring back at him when he looked in the mirror, even though that may well be the image that is uppermost in our minds when we try to visualise him.
Who did Jesus see when he looked in the mirror? He obviously did not see any of the physical attributes of his adopted father Joseph, although many of us know from our own experiences of both growing up on the one hand and being parents on the other, that Jesus in the early years of his life in the Holy Family would have taken on many of the characteristics that he saw and experienced in his earthly father.
But he did have a biological mother, and unless his humanity was really a trick, in other words that he wasn’t really human at all, then when Jesus looked in the mirror he saw in his own face some of the physical attributes of his mother; and that reality reaches right to the heart of the mystery of our faith: that Jesus was both truly God and truly human. Not one pretending to be the other, but fully, truly, both in a way that could never have been conceived of before him, and which will never happen again.
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father; through whom all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.” The point is this: Jesus did not need to grow into being God, he was God for all eternity; but he did need to grow into being human, and for that to happen he was dependent on Mary, his mother.
Mary is the first human being to experience the presence and the reality of the incarnation here on earth. She is the one who quite literally lives in the presence of Jesus in the nine months of her pregnancy, as she goes about her normal life whilst bearing him within her body, and then as she nurtures him – the Son of God into the fullness of his humanity.
As the writer to the Church in Galatia declares it, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman so that we might receive adoption as heirs of God.” That is why as Anglicans we honour Mary above all human beings. We call her the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ echoing the words of the song of praise that she sang – the Magnificat – which we said together a few moments ago, recognising that she has a unique place in the story of our salvation.
Now I recognise that it would be fair to say that for some of us here in this congregation talking about Mary moves beyond sour comfort zones. Some of us are more ready to see depictions of Mary in our stained glass windows than we are to encounter images of her in statues and icons. There have been through the centuries since the Reformation, and remain to this day, movements of Christians who have wanted to minimise Mary’s role in the story of God’s love for us. These expressions have often rightly sought to bring a balance to perceptions that Mary has been given too prominent a place, almost as a god in her own right, within Christian thinking. But we need to be careful if we have in our minds that Mary was simply an incubating vessel who was used for nine months in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled; because to side line Mary in the story of our salvation is to side line the humanity of Jesus as well.
In our Gospel reading we heard again the wonderful announcement of the birth of Jesus, and we know, as it was for each of us, that he will be dependent upon his mother as he grows from being a new born baby boy, through infancy into the full stature of his manhood. Today we celebrate one of a number of feasts dedicated to Mary in our Anglican calendar. With Christians around the world, who more properly kept this feast during the last week on 15th August, we give thanks for Mary the Mother of God, a title given to her by the Church at the Council of Ephesus in the Fifth Century, a Council to which we as Anglicans subscribe. We celebrate Mary as Jesus’ mother, we celebrate Jesus as God for all eternity, and so we affirm Mary as the Mother of God.
There is a wonderful statue in the cloister of a Benedictine community in England that expresses all of this so powerfully. Mary is depicted as uncovering the baby Jesus, she is pulling back a shawl under which he has been sleeping. The sculpture is entitled, “Mary reveals the Light of the World.” It is an image that is worth pondering. Mary reveals Christ to the world – the light of the world, and of course Mary also reveals the world to Christ – God is born through her, in human form.
As it is for us, so when Jesus looked in the mirror he saw the physical attributes of his mother, that’s what it means for him to be truly human. But when we look at Mary she is always pointing us to her son. Today as we come to offer our love and worship to Jesus at this Eucharist, we honour Mary his mother; and we pray in the words of today’s Collect prayer that we “who are redeemed by his blood, may share with her in the glory of his eternal kingdom. Amen.”