At the center of the Christmas story is a woman. Mary the mother of Jesus is often overlooked as a mere means of delivering the Christ child, but I believe we do ourselves a disservice when we reduce the role of Mary in the Nativity scene to this minor, albeit important role. We do this instead of recognizing that without Mary knowing (Yes, she did know), understanding, and acting, the Holy Spirit would have been left without an entry way for the Son of God into the world. Mary should share the stage with the Christ child, because without her courage and willingness, Christmas wouldn’t exist. While certainly Jesus is the reason we celebrate, this shouldn’t in any way diminish the magnitude of the faith of Mary. A rereading of Luke chapter one reveals that Mary was central to the drama of the incarnation and gives us insight to the nature and character of God.
Popular theologies often depict God as a grand architect who has foreordained every detail, but the narratives that surround the birth of Christ seem to indicate that a lot of what happened was dependent on human consent. In this way God is less an architect and more a gardener, harking back to the creation account where God planted a garden. God has been faithful to His chief occupation ever since which is establishing the parameters in which conditions are optimal for human flourishing. There is no indication that Mary was an extraordinary human being. Unlike the son she would birth, she wasn’t deity and possessed no supernatural powers, but rather she decided to grow in the moment she was planted.
Luke records that when the angelic messenger arrived, that Mary was greeted with this message; “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” An ordinary peasant girl is identified as “highly favored” by God. This is the opposite of our inclinations that favor is reserved for the wealthy, the connected, and the powerful. But by favoring Mary, God powerfully confirms that He is predisposed to honor the marginalized. Naturally, Mary is fearful. Receiving angelic visitors would certainly qualify as an awe inspiring, even scary event. Unlike the heroes that are so often conjured in our works of imagination, Mary wasn’t brave, she was afraid, and this real human emotion isn’t condemned. The angel instead, provides a comforting word; “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” The favor of God on her is directly connected with the very real fears within her. This should be of great comfort to those of us who struggle with fearful and sometimes debilitating anxieties. Fear isn’t a disqualification from life but is a qualifying characteristic to experience life at its fullest.
Like us, Mary has questions. “How?” she asks the angel. I would venture that most of our experiences in this life are accomplished by mysterious means that we are slow to identify. We like to think ourselves all powerful, when indeed, we are dependent upon the miraculous means of grace extended to us by others. When I reflect on my own experiences, It would be difficult to describe how I arrived at where I am today. Indeed, reflecting on how I got here is increasingly a chief intellectual exercise that leaves me with little wisdom. Analytics and diagrams are often useful in describing what has happened but provide little help in discerning what will happen. Like Mary, we are left with faith and acceptance. Mary responds in Luke 1:28; “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.”
In the holy moments that followed, Mary didn’t have another angelic visitation. The angel left. There was no angelic chorus serenading her morning sickness. There was no constant reassurance that she was “in the will of God,” just an abiding faith marked by acceptance that she was an unwed mother in culture governed by First-Century patriarchy with all its implications of a public shaming. In fact, it would take a God-given dream to correct Joseph’s first instincts to distance himself from Mary and her circumstances. Imagine that! God correcting the prevailing notions of patriarchy. God countering the conventional wisdom that women are less than valuable, especially when “encumbered” by unwanted and unwelcomed pregnancies. Neither her society, her religion, or her culture was willing to endorse what God called holy. Mary was left with simple yet profound acceptance accompanied by abiding faith.
I’m struck by how often my own culture has been quick to label unacceptable those others whose bodies, status, or power isn’t in line with what is deemed moral and therefore good. It begs the question; how would I have treated Mary? How would my church have treated Mary? Would my community have supported her or shunned her, would she have adequate healthcare, affordable housing, sustainable living? My guess is that most likely, she would again be relegated to whatever the Twenty-First Century equivalent of a stable and a manger, because there is no room for people like her in our economic inns.
Left with little to no support, Mary did not lose the vision for what was to be birthed in her. Her heart exploded in worship of God with a song of His triumph over the strong, privileged, and powerful.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
What if this became our Christmas Hymn? Instead, we continue to embrace our proud thoughts. We aspire to political thrones of power and influence, we chant “USA! USA!” in our churches as Herod pontificates repeating the “Big Lie.” We are anything but humble. We tell the hungry to get a job, and the destitute to work harder. We send the foreigner away and build a wall should they return. We cry “All lives matter!” while refusing to learn from our own history that Black lives never have. We are the rich Mary was singing about, and we are the target of her imprecatory lament. Yet we refuse to repent. In fact, Mary would be denied an opportunity to share her Magnificat in most of our churches, especially if she desired to preach the message from behind a pulpit.
I’m convinced that until we rediscover the experience of Mary at the first Christmas the realization of our own will remain less than flourishing -as God the master gardener intends. There can never truly be a Merry Christmas until first we fully understand and appreciate Mary(‘s)Christmas.