If one didn’t know better, one might guess that our salvation started with the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. After all, that was when the eternal Word took flesh and was born among us for our salvation. But since we keep the Great Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, we do know better, and recognize that our salvation really began not with the birth of Jesus, but with the birth of Mary. For so momentous an event as the birth of God in the flesh and the union of heaven with earth and of eternity with time, some advance preparation needed to be done. It was not as if nine months or so before the divinely scheduled birth of Christ God looked around Nazareth and said to Himself, “Hmm. Who can I get to be His Mother? Let’s see now—Mary seems to be a nice girl; she’ll do.” Mary was not a last-minute choice, chosen more or less at random. Like all the persons intimately connected with the events of salvation history, she was chosen at birth and prepared all her life for her divine role.
That was how God always worked. Thus Jeremiah was consecrated for his task as a prophet to the nations before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5), and Paul was set apart from his mother’s womb for his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15), and John the Forerunner was filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Given this divine modus operandi, can we seriously believe that the person chosen to bear, teach, and raise the incarnate Son of God was chosen casually at the last minute? No! Like saints before and after her, her birth and formation were planned and part of the world’s salvation. When Gabriel was finally sent to her with the annunciation tidings that she had been chosen to be mother to the Messiah, he did not need to hold his breath waiting to see whether or not she would accept the tidings and say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She had been literally born for the job, and everything in her young life had been leading to that moment. God began to save us even before the birth at Bethlehem—His work really began with the birth of Mary.
Mary’s spiritual formation from her birth teaches us that what God wanted for the Incarnation was not simply the physical female anatomy necessary for birth-giving, but a real mother, in every sense of the word. Jesus’ birth marked not the end of her Christmas work, but only its beginning. For Christ came not just to take a body, but to take a family—a mother, a father, and extended brothers (“extended”, because they were not the children of Mary). It was this family that remained with Him to the end and remained in Jerusalem with the Twelve awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). It was this family that became transfigured and transformed by the Holy Spirit to become the Church. It is this family which we also join through holy baptism. For the Church is the family of Christ, and all who do the will of the Father are Christ’s mother, brothers, and sisters (Mark 3:35).
The nativity of the Theotokos begins the Church year by reminding us that our salvation consists of joining this family, of which Mary is the mother. God began the work of saving and re-creating the world by first creating this little girl. Her birth promised new birth for everyone, and her young newborn crying announced the good news that salvation was almost here.