In their December 2015 edition, National Geographic did a cover story focused on How the Virgin Mary Became the World’s Most Powerful Woman. Mary barely speaks in the New Testament, but her image and legacy are found and celebrated around the world and the magazine explores the draw of this woman across nations and even religious divides as she is highly revered amongst Muslims.
In Christian theology since the Council of Ephesus in 431AD Mary has been recognised as Theotokos - the one who gave birth to God or Mother of God. The Council declared that both Divine and human natures were united in the person of Jesus, the son of Mary. Hence, Mary may be called Theotokos, since the son she bore according to the flesh, Jesus, is truly one of the Divine persons of the Trinity. This Marian title is really a Christological statement, which affirms that the second person of the Trinity, who was born into history as fully human, is really 'God with us'.
But away from the complexities of high theology where is the young girl of Nazareth? And what is her role in the events we celebrate at Christmas?
In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives Joseph Ratzinger speaks of Mary’s ‘straightforward yes’ to the angel Gabriel when she says ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ (Lk. 1:38)
Pope Benedict reminds us of a homily by St Bernard of Clairvaux who presents this moment in dramatic fashion. God seeks to enter the world and to do so He knocks at Mary’s door. However, God needs human freedom because humans have been created free so a free yes is required as a response to his will. In this sense God is now dependent on humanity and has truly ‘emptied’ Himself of all power and control. His power is now tied to the ‘unenforceable’ yes of a human being - the young girl Mary. Bernard pictures heaven and earth ‘holding its breath’ at this moment awaiting Mary’s yes. This is the crucial moment when from her lips and from her heart the answer comes: ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’
But what are the consequences of that answer? “In human terms, in paschal terms – [from the Greek verb pascho with its root word in strickeness and suffering] – the story of Jesus begins with a terrified teenager birthing onto a futon of straw in a rock cavity amid the incense of the breath of livestock. It begins in a Taliban territory, a sectarian state that murders single mothers by stoning them. It begins badly and ends worse – in the public execution of her child as a condemned criminal in a rubbish dump outside the city walls.”
In very human terms, still very much happening today, frightened young girls and women are giving birth in conditions not much better and often worse, relying on the divine grace of their human female nature – often so defiled and abused by the societies that they are in - to bring to climax the process of creation which they have participated in either willingly or unwillingly. Like that young Jewish girl giving birth without the benefit of midwives they too often “experience an unescorted birth; labour without amenity…there are no women present”. It was ironic that it was “the despised shepherds of inter-testamental Palestine [who visit the birth of] the puking mite who has been born at the wrong time and in the wrong environment”. But that irony is further compounded when it is men, the stalwarts in a theatre of atrocity who will be absent from the vigil at the Cross. The roles are reversed, men welcome him into the world and women assist him out of this vale of tears.
But even before the messiness, the pain and suffering of birth in a dark cave where a mother, in her ultimate gift to the world, in bringing new life into that ungrateful world, prefigures the blood and pain of Calvary, she had suffered for her willingness to be open to the message of God.
She suffered from staring eyes and whispers behind her back which forced her to the shelter of her cousin Elizabeth to the consolation of another woman in the same predicament as she. Small consolation to her, but surely it offers hope to any woman in the situation of an unexpected pregnancy and worried about “what the neighbours may say”.
She suffered in the uncertainty as to whether her fiancée would stand by her in what in human terms he could have seen as being an ultimate betrayal. We can say that “Joseph was a very decent man. He didn’t want to give his girlfriend a bad reputation and after a reassuring dream he married her. But was it a happy life?” 
As we gaze on the images of a pregnant Mary should pause and wonder, how did this single, unwed teenage mother feel after her decision? But perhaps Mary herself has given us her response..........
It's Mary pondering what her Child would look like. I tried hard to turn the face of Jesus toward the face of Mary thinking what his Mother looks like but I was totally unable to turn his head to look up. So I gave up trying. The best I could do, to get closer to my idea from meditation was for him to embrace the heart beating with love for Him.”
As we contemplate with Mary, as we wait with her for the joy of Christmas, we are asked to meditate on that idea of Jesus embracing the heart beating with love for him. Are our hearts beating for love of him? Are we ready for him to embrace us this Christmas?