As we get ready to come close to the mystery of Christmas, there are always some parts of the story that hit home. And it’s amazing how this can change from year to year. In recent years I remember grappling with refugee issues, as children around the world died (and continue to die) in humanitarian crises. The stories of King Herod at Jesus’ time, and Pharoah at Moses’ time, seemed terrifyingly similar to what our country was doing as we sent refuge-seeking children back into dangerous lands. These comparisons still ring true even if they don’t occupy main headlines. This year’s Christmas pageant will once again have Jesus born in a garage, no crib for a bed (we’ll probably use a laundry basket). This is still an important part of the story.
But who would have thought that this year, we’d be thinking more about the fact that Mary was a teenage mother, pregnant out of the security of wedlock, subject to scandal and the threat of total abandonment. Who thought we’d have such a loud conversation going now, about sexual consent and harassment? Who would have thought that the “Silence Breakers” would be Time’s “people of the year?” An Alabama politician Jim Zeigler defended Roy Moore by saying Roy Moore’s preying on teenage girls was comparable to the relationship Joseph had with Mary. At which point we ALL put the theological brakes on and said WAIT JUST A SECOND HERE. We have seen the Bible used to justify moral atrocities in the past. The Bible has been used to justify slavery, war, and the dispossession of native peoples from their lands. The Bible is still used to oppress women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. We know it’s a dangerous tool. But no, not on our watch, not this year. This year we are waking up and are going to stay woke. Our religious text will not be used to justify sexual harassment.
So here are a few counter-cultural words on what Mary’s story DID mean, to keep us from despair, to keep our minds on the positive, and to keep us from allowing this precious story to be co-opted to serve evil ends.
– God asks permission. According to the Gospel of Luke, the messenger Gabriel goes and talks with Mary until she says “Here I am, the servant of my Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” God does not force her.
– Joseph believes Mary. She knows what happened to her body, and her fiance listens. He could easily have dismissed her on the evidence of her pregnancy, cancelling the marriage and leaving her unmarriageable and destitute. It was his right (in that unjust world). But he was decent and kind.
– Mary sings of nations toppling; the powerful cast down from their thrones; the lowly lifted up. Mary’s song (The Magnificat) continues to threaten the powerful even today. Her words were banned from being read or sung in India during the British colonial administration; in the 80’s, they were forbidden in El Salvador and Guatemala, because of their political power. God is the one who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. The world is about to turn — may it be so even here and today.
PS if you have a few minutes for a modern Magnificat, enjoy this version of Mary’s song. https://youtu.be/_Vc3S4QFQ_s?t=1m26s