At a championship series major league baseball game in Toronto, after a questionable umpiring call, disgruntled spectators started throwing beer cans onto the field of play. It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened, but an incident on this particular night created an image that caught attention: a distraught mother, in the stands, shielding her baby with her body. A flying beer can fortunately didn’t hit the baby but was close enough to spray beer all over the child on the way by. Photographs show the kind of parental distress you might expect in a war zone, not a theatre of entertainment.
The image of a mother holding a baby in her arms is “iconic” in the true sense: it’s an image (Greek, eikon) of how God reveals himself in our world. For Christians, the word “image” shows humanity’s special relationship to God. “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our own image (eikon)’ ’’ (Gn 1:26). We are images, or icons, of God, in some way that no other part of creation is.
God dreamt up all the billions of people who have ever lived, the vast planet on which we all dwell, the billions of planets throughout the universe, the (possibly) billions of universes. In all that is — larger than we can glimpse or imagine — humanity is special because humans are eikons, images, of the one God.
And of all the images dear to Christian tradition, the mother and child holds a prime spot. Why do we hold a special place for Mary in the church? The answer is in this image.
Like the crucifix, the “Madonna with child” is so familiar, we may forget what’s astonishing about it. It doesn’t apply only to mothers, women, or boy babies. It applies to every human.
Ancient Christian hymns help us to enter into the mystery of this image. Such hymns are still sung today because they give a key to the magnificent mystery of our own living: Mary, a creature, holds in her arms the Creator of the universe. No wonder Christian hymns marvel at this oh-so-common spectacle of a woman holding a baby. For they see it in the light of creation and redemption. They see the Creator becoming vulnerable and fragile, as a human, and placing himself in the care and power of the creature. If she were to drop him, he would be as hurt as any child.
If Mary were to take this baby to a major league baseball game, and a beer can were to be launched within an inch of his head, she would shield him with her body just as the 21st-century mother did.
Jesus, as an infant, was not threatened by beer cans, but he was surrounded by violence. The violence of poverty, causing his mother and foster-father to seek shelter in a place where animals were fed. The violence of jealousy, causing Herod to seek and massacre an untold number of first-born boy babies. The violence of power, causing Joseph to take his family to another country for refuge. Even in the moment of celebrating Jesus’ birth, the Word made flesh, God-with-us, the fulfilment of all promises — we recall human violence.
The photograph of the baby needing its mother’s protection brought home, more than any other image, the foolishness and violence of beer-throwing in a baseball stadium. It was clearly on a different level from images of adult spectators, players, and officials in the same situation. A child’s innocent vulnerability highlights the shocking nature of human violence. The vulnerability and innocence of Christ helps us see that the violence is in us, not in God.
How can we, so prone to violence, become God-like? For that is what we, made in God’s image, are called to.
Violence in God’s name is the challenge of our day. Christmas is God’s judgement on this belief.
In this time of preparation to celebrate Christ’s birth into the world, we get to stop and listen. We get to wonder at the movement of the shining stars, travelling with the Wise Ones toward the one star. We get to smell the sheep on the hillside while listening to the angel’s concert. We get to behold the baby’s newness, and bask in Mary and Joseph’s courage and faith, wrapping him and laying him in a manger.
The world’s violence didn’t deter them from rejoicing in the new life and new work God gave them. It didn’t make them sequester the newborn in isolationist protectiveness. In their poverty and vulnerability, they were able to let this Child be for the world. Mary made a place for the Word to be made flesh. And this allowed her, the creature, made in God’s image, to become bearer of God.
Let us receive all that’s given us in these days of wonder. Let us be changed by them, from violence to the true peace that only the Prince of Peace can give.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org