A sermon preached
by Carol Penner
at The First Mennonite Church, Vineland, Ontario
Sunday November 27, 2022
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel tells Mary about the the plans that God has for her, that she will become pregnant, that God will become incarnate. In my sermon today I want to connect incarnation and pregnancy, hopefully in a new way for you. I want us to think about how pregnancy is part of the good news of the incarnation. The medium is part of the message.
The announcement of a pregnancy by an angel is a common story in the Bible. Think about Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis receiving their messenger from God. Old Sarah, long past childbearing, is told that she is going to have a baby. She can’t believe it, she laughs because it’s ridiculous! But the messenger tells her “Is anything too hard for God?” God has the last laugh with a little baby named Isaac, whose name means laughter.
In the gospel of Luke, Mary faces a similar impossibility…she’s not too old to get pregnant, but she is a virgin and has never been with a man, so logically pregnancy doesn’t make sense. The angel messenger says to Mary what was said to Sarah, “Nothing is too hard for God,” “Nothing is impossible for God.”
Mary accepts the pregnancy. In Eugene Peterson’s translation, she says:
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Artists through history have tried to picture what it was like for Mary to receive the angel visitor, to catch both the meaning and emotional impact of this event.
Let’s look at the different ways twelve artists in different time periods have pictured Mary receiving this news. Mary’s body takes different postures in these pictures: demure, with head bowed and eyes downcast; Mary portrayed on her knees looking straight at the angel. Mary with arms outstretched, surprised at the news. This pregnancy is going to change her body, it’s going to change her life.
[12 slides, 6 seconds each]
I wonder if you have ever wondered about why God entered the world through pregnancy and birth. That wasn’t the only option. “Nothing is impossible with God.” In Greek mythology Athena emerged out of Zeus’s skull, and Aphrodite from the waves of the ocean. You’ve probably seen the famous artwork of Venus arriving fully formed in a clam shell.
Jesus could have just appeared out of nowhere as a fully formed adult. Jesus could have arrived in glory on a chariot drawn by 100 angels, pulling up in style at one of the great festivals in Jerusalem. What an audience he would have had! We could have had a sermon on the chariot, instead of a sermon on the mount!
But God chose the very tiniest of incarnations. Flesh and blood. Cells dividing, networks of blood vessels connecting the Son of David, the Son of the Most High, with Mary, the young woman from Nazareth. By doing incarnation this way God forever connected pregnancy, with the giving of salvation. Incarnation, God becoming flesh, like we are. Mary’s body a temple, a home for God.
For many centuries artists didn’t want to show Mary being visibly pregnant in their artwork. There was a hesitancy in Western art about showing women pregnant. In your lifetime you have probably seen hundreds of pictures of Greek statues, showing the beautiful human form of naked men and women, but I would be surprised if you could remember seeing a statue of a pregnant women. The ancient Greek culture didn’t consider a woman’s pregnant body beautiful. They didn’t want to emphasize the power of women creating life.
This was in contrast to the oldest artwork of the world. The oldest statues archaeologists have found from the earliest societies often depicted pregnant women. Pregnancy was a sacred and powerful image. But Greek and Roman culture, which so influenced European civilization, took a different direction. They thought pregnancy was something to be hidden away and not talked about. It’s no surprise that they pictured gods emerging fully formed from someone’s forehead. They thought, “Let’s just skip thinking about the whole female pregnancy thing completely and focus on our minds!”
But in Christianity, the incarnation is all about God becoming flesh. God taking on human form in the person of Jesus Christ, Jesus was in the womb of the virgin Mary: this was a theological fact that could not be denied. How would artists deal with that fact in a Western tradition that didn’t like to show pregnant women?
Let’s look at some images. One way was by showing a fully formed little child enclosed in a circle; you look at the painting and you get the idea that Mary had a person inside her.
Mary is pregnant, you can see the baby inside her, but it’s like a little door has opened, and you can see inside her.
Other artists were a little shy about putting the image of the uterus right over Mary’s belly, perhaps they felt that was a bit too graphic. The had a preference for showing Jesus in Mary’s chest. I am sure Mary was carrying Jesus in her heart. But she necessarily was literally carrying him in her belly even if they didn’t want to represent that.
Eventually some artists started depicting Mary as visibly pregnant. I like this one titled, “Madonna del Parto”, Pregnant Madonna by Piero della Francesco in Italy in the 1300s. This Mary looks very pregnant, and she doesn’t look comfortable. That is very realistic in late stage pregnancy.
Here are a few other historical paintings of Mary pregnant:
I like these artworks because they emphasize the physicality of the incarnation. Mary, the mother of Jesus, carried a special baby. But she carried it the way everyone else does. The food she ate nourished it, her womb was a home for it. She felt baby Jesus kick inside of her. She felt him startle at loud noises.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches have always had a special place in theology for Mary because she was pregnant with Jesus. In the Catholic church Mary is often called the Mother of God. In the Orthodox tradition, she is called “God-bearer”. All because of the pregnancy where she carried Jesus in her body
Here at First Mennonite we have been thinking a lot about pregnancy because Christine, our pastor’s partner, has been expecting, and this past week we received the wonderful news that Christine had a baby girl. I know a number of people here have friends or relatives who had babies this year. That is the case in my own family with the arrival of our first grandchild. When a baby is expected in a community, the whole community waits, loving that baby into being.
God teaches us important things through pregnancy. One of the hardest things in the world, one of the biggest challenges we are given by God, is to love our neighbour as ourself. To love another human being as much as we love ourselves. Jesus when he is grown up talks about loving your neighbour as yourself as the greatest commandment. But what a challenge that is since we are all separate people, with separate minds, and separate wills. Anyone who has ever lived in a family knows that it can be very challenging to love someone else as you love yourself. But the act of carrying a baby inside you is a perfect lesson to us of how to love another.
I am sure you know that every single human being has their own DNA. You have your own personal DNA signature in all your cells, you get some DNA from your mom and some from your dad but you are a unique person. Every single one of your cells has your own DNA in it. And the body can’t tolerate cells with other people’s DNA in it. If your body senses cells with other people’s DNA in it, it will attack those cells. We see this playing out in organ transplants. If your lungs or liver or kidney fails, doctors now can sometimes transplant someone else’s organ inside you. So then you have cells with someone else’s DNA inside you. But the body doesn’t like that. Even if the donated liver or lung is from your own mother or brother, your body will still reject it. That’s why people who get organ transplants have to take strong anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives to fool their body into accepting those cells, that organ from another person.
That is why scientists have always been amazed at pregnancy because the womb has been the exception. A pregnant body not only tolerates these cells with foreign DNA, it nurtures them. For nine months the body will treat this other person as if it was their own body, the mother giving the baby exactly what they need. A bodily lesson of how to love our neighbour as ourselves.
And of course that bodily lesson continues in emotional ties once the baby is born. That is a connection not just with a biological mother and baby, but with the other parent, with adoptive parents and an extended family, and a whole community. We all love the baby as ourselves and the baby, nurtured in that environment of love, hopefully learns how to love unselfishly as well.
This is all part of God’s good creation. I wonder if we can see the uterus as sacred space, a classroom, a place where we learn something essential. The first step in human life is a microcosm of what the rest of our life is all about. Can we love our neighbour as ourself? Can we be truly human the way God created us to be, the way God wants us to be?
The fact that Jesus came as an embryo, a fetus, a baby nurtured in Mary’s belly, is a way for God to draw attention to pregnancy. “See this, this is good, this is the way I choose to come into the world!” We can learn something essential if we pay attention, but we have to pay attention to Mary’s pregnant body and the physicality of the incarnation. That’s why I wanted to show you the pictures today, so you can picture it.
We often ignore Mary’s pregnancy, or don’t give it much thought. The church often downplays or ignores pregnancy and childbirth, these are seen as entirely private things for women, and their immediate family members. We welcome babies into church once they are here, but we don’t talk about gestation. We don’t talk about the spiritual meaning of pregnancy. We overlook it as a necessary but unimportant fact of life. We don’t think theologically about how pregnancy teaches us to be truly human.
I was reading about pregnancy this week and I learned the most amazing thing. As I mentioned, we know that a woman’s body can be a home for another human being, the pregnant body nurturing someone else’s DNA as if it was her own body. Yes, but wait a minute, it’s more complicated and amazing than you think. The embryo, the fetus, the baby in the woman’s belly, it turns out that the baby’s cells don’t all stay in the uterus. Very early on, cells from the baby, likely fetal stem cells, cross into the mother’s body. And you would think, well the mother’s body will destroy those cells, because they have different DNA. But NO, that is not the case.
Scientists call these cells fetal microchimerism. A chimera in Greek mythology was a creature with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a dragon, a chimera is about different things living together in strange ways. Fetal microchimerism is when a small number of the tiny fetus’s cells migrate into the mother’s body, and the mother’s body doesn’t reject them. These were discovered in the late 1800s by Georg Schmorl, a German researcher, but it is something that has become better known in recent years with the ability to do DNA sequencing of cells. In 1979 scientists from Stanford were looking at tissue cells from a woman, and they found a few cells with Y sex chromosomes. But women only have X chromosomes. This should be impossible. Researchers found that these male DNA cells were only found inside women who have carried male babies. Female babies also transfer cells into their mother, but those took a little bit longer to spot.
These microchimera cells are not just inert, not just hiding secretly in the mother’s body doing nothing. They take on different forms and act like the cells around them. They grow and multiply. And they don’t just stay in one place close to the uterus, they actually go to different places all over the body, to the brain, the breast, the skin, the blood, the bone marrow.
What scientists have discovered is that these fetal microchimerism cells, the baby’s cells, migrate around the body to places where there is injury. So for example, if you are pregnant and have a caesarean section, when scientists analyze your scar tissue in the incisions, they have found these fetal microchimerism cells in the scar tissue at a higher rate than in the surrounding healthy tissue. These cells are trying to help heal the mother.
Scientists have found that when someone who has had a pregnancy at some later point has cancer, even decades later, and the body is fighting the cancer, guess who shows up? The fetal microchimerism cells are there fighting the cancer. They migrate there to help battle the cancer.
Scientists have known for a long time that women who have had pregnancies have a better prognosis with breast cancer, and they are researching now whether it is the presence of these microchimerism fetal cells, the cells of another human being, that are making the difference inside women. In fact there are even studies exploring whether the fact that women live longer than men has to do with these microchimerism cells that are working to keep women healthy longer.
This cell transfer doesn’t happen when you give birth, it happens at a very early stage of pregnancy, so even women who miscarry or have a stillbirth, they experience this transfer of cells. A woman who has had a pregnancy will carry the DNA of that embryo, that fetus, that baby for the rest of their life. If you have lost a pregnancy or a baby, in a real physical way that tiny person’s actual cells, with their DNA, is still inside you somewhere, even though you haven’t knows it, their cells have been with you, helping you, healing you and protecting you.
Love your neighbour as yourself. In pregnancy it turns out it is not a one-way street, the way we thought. It’s not just about the pregnant body caring for the embryo, the fetus, the baby’s body as if it was her own. It’s not just the mother holding the newborn baby saying, “My body broken for you” and thinking it was worth it. Now we find out that the embryo, the fetus, the baby is doing that too. Microscopic cells from one person, going into another person, and at a molecular level, helping them, healing them, protecting them.
Nothing is too hard for God. God is teaching us lessons from moment one in human life. Love your neighbour as yourself. Teaching us through pregnancy, teaching us lessons through tiny microscopic cells, our own signature DNA teaching us how to treat each other.
And so there’s the challenge my friends. Can we love each other as much as these tiny microchimerism cells that God created? Can we love each other as much as a pregnant body loves another?
In the incarnation, God chose to become flesh and blood, to take on cells with DNA. God found a woman, Mary, to be a home, to be a God-bearer, to be a mother of God. God uses this medium of pregnancy to draw attention to our amazing bodies, our temples of the Holy Spirit. Using these bodies to teach us lessons about what it means to be human.
We do not need to transcend our bodies to reach God. We need to live in them, to live into them, to live up to them, to be fully human, like God created us to be.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
Some articles about fetal microchimerism: