Re-post for Christmas Eve.
Anyway, as stated in the title, this is going to be a few thoughts about the Christmas story.
1. I understand that many Protestants have emphasized Mary’s ordinariness in order to counter Catholicism’s tendencies towards Mary-worship, but let’s think about this girl for a minute. When an angel shows up, when does she get spooked? Not until the angel says to her “Greetings, O favored one, for the Lord is with you,” and the only reason she’s even slightly freaked out is the oddness of the greeting. Bear in mind, a few verses ago, an angel showed up in the temple to a priest named Zechariah (John the Baptist’s daddy), and Zechariah freaked out from the get-go. Then, what does the angel do? He tells her that she’s going to get pregnant and call the resulting boy Jesus, and he’s going to be the Messiah. When Mary, understandably confused at this point, says “I’m a virgin,” and the angel replies with “”Yeah, your kid is going be the son of God (implied: “no sex required”), and your much older formerly barren relative Elizabeth is about to have a kid–yes, God can do anything.” (loosely paraphrased)
Now, thing is, pre-wedding virginity was kind of a big deal for women back then. How big of a deal was it? So big of a deal that Joseph, Mary’s fiance at the time, is called a pretty good guy for just planning on divorcing her quietly–instead of having her stoned, like Old Testament law said he could. Pregnancy is a pretty good indicator that virginity is no longer present, and who’s going to believe this story, except for Elizabeth?
What’s Mary’s reaction? “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
This, it should be noted, is a better reaction than a goodly portion of the potentially life- and and reputation-destroying calls God sent out got–see Jonah for a prime example.
Oh, and should I mention that, at this point in her life, there’s a decent chance that she wouldn’t have been old enough to drive these days?
Was Mary human, with sins and flaws? No duh–yes. Was she still kind of cooler than the average girl? Um, yeah.
2. Let’s talk about Joseph for a minute. He’s a carpenter–not the highest class artisan, not by a long shot, but he’s not exactly just an ordinary farmer, either. He finds out that his fiance’s pregnant, and he knows that the kid ain’t his, and might not’ve believed Mary’s story. So, he plans on sending her away as quietly as possible to avoid word getting out for Mary’s sake, not his, until an angel shows up in a dream and says “Take her as your wife anyway, she’s telling the truth and he’ll save his people” (loosely paraphrased). Let’s think about this for a minute. Joseph is a respectable man, probably from a respectable family, living in a small town–y’know, the kind of place where you never live anything down–in an era where you tended to live your whole life and die within twenty miles of home, with maybe one or two forays to someplace within a hundred miles. Marrying your already pregnant fiance is kind of a big deal, in a bad way. So what does he do? He says “Okay” and marries her. Particularly for that day and age, that was a massive leap of faith, particularly one based on a dream.
Oh, and then he restrains himself after they’re married until after Jesus is born. Pretty solid guy, all told.
3. The shepherds. Thing is, at this point in time, these guys were not top rung on the economic ladder. They were somewhere around where migrant farm laborers are today, both in terms of social and economic standing–also, minus the people calling for better treatment for them. These are the guys little baby Jesus sees first in the world, besides Mary and Joseph, and these are the first people not related by law or blood to Mary to get the Good News, and, as if that weren’t enough, get it delivered to them by angels. They are also the first folks to spread the news about this whole thing, too, as they go through the villages around telling the tale of what had happened. They’re kind of special themselves, although they never, ever show up again–one wonders what happened to them (That’s a good plot idea for your next book, Christian fiction authors).
4. The magi. Yes, they’re rich. Really rich. But let’s think about them for a minute. A bunch of guys (not necessarily three) see a star, decide there’s a king being born, and ride from the east to go see what this is all about, stopping by Jerusalem for precise directions. At this point, King Herod, who doesn’t want to be overthrown, asks them to tell him about this kid when they find him. They do, pay him homage, and then ride off away from Jerusalem after being warned not go back there in a dream. In other words, they missed a major chance to get in good with a current ruler for the sake of a two-year-old–or possibly, for the sake of their own hides, depending on the nature of the dream-warning.
Although, you got to admit, the magi seem kind of politically naive. “Hey, King Herod, can you tell us where the king of the Jews, a.k.a. the people you rule, was just born?”
5. The slaughter of the innocents. Herod then ordered the killing of all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem. He didn’t know that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had already left by this point, having been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, where Herod had no jurisdiction.
There’s a few larger points to be drawn from this. First, if what happened to Mary and Joseph was any indication, holding on to your social standing and following God’s commands, if not necessarily opposed, are definitely not unified concepts. (Note: this applies to both kinds of legalists, a.k.a. the Christian left and right.) Second, the fact that shepherds and really high-paid respectable astrologers (yes, that’s what magi were) were both informed of this birth, while Mary and Joseph were probably lower middle-class (or the equivalent thereof in the pecking order, anyway) indicates the universal nature of the Gospel–to put it in Marxian terms, proletarians, bourgeoisie, and capitalists can come to the King. Or, to put it in other terms, the moral, the immoral, and the unmannered can come to the King, for all have need of him. Third, the slaughter of the innocents points out the basic fact of life on earth: the birth of Christ is a victory, but the price is high, and the immediate results are violent. This is the world as it is, and points out that Christ’s birth is not enough, and that there was a purpose he was sent to fulfill.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness