We often talk about Mary only at Christmas time, complete with images of her with the baby Jesus, for cutesy pictures depicting a blond haired blue eyed mother and baby, for sanctimonious sermons about peace and hope and love. We mash up the biblical narratives and tell a story of angels and shepherds and patient Joseph. We talk about wise men and barnyard animals. We talk about a baby who doesn’t cry. We tell a safe story about a safe, normative, heterosexual family with an adorable new infant who (depending on your tradition) mostly came just to spout some platitudes and then to die horrifically in order to appease a wrathful God. Needless to say, it’s bad theology all over the place these days.
Which is a shame. Because of the real story? The one you get when you strip away all of the Christmas movies and Christmas card pictures, the one you get when you actually read the text and know something about the history, the one that is real and true? The story we actually get in Scripture, the Biblical story? That story is awesome. And subversive. And not at all schmaltzy.
The real story tells us about a badass teenage girl. Someone with no power in society. Someone already betrothed to a man probably many years her senior (and probably without her consent). She’s got brown skin and dark hair and eyes. She’s living in an occupied territory. She and her family are constantly under threat from the occupiers. One never knows when they will come in and wipe out a town. Or when they will decide to take what they want from women and young girls as a bit of fun. She is living on edge. Unsafe.
And yet she is found by God to be worthy of a great calling. She is given a great task. She is asked to bear a child. A special child. A child who will change the world. She says yes. Young, at risk, without a safety net; she says yes. Knowing what it could cost her, she says yes.
Not only does she say yes, but she says yes with a pretty epic speech. I mean, just listen to this: “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel.” Y’all that is not a “oh look at me all sweet and docile and gonna have a baby!” That is fierce, activist spirit, “God is gonna turn this world upside down and I’m going to be a part of it.” She is saying, listen, God is going to save us. God is going to save us not just spiritually but physically. God is going to free us from our oppressors, give the poor what they need, and turn the tables.
Mary isn’t some docile 25-year old, softly lit, with a halo behind her head. Honestly, she’s a bit more like Katniss from the “Hunger Games”; a little rough around the edges and ready to take her part in the revolution when called on. Actually, she’s even more badass than Katniss because from the get-go she’s looking out for the good of all of her people.
So here we have this radical young person, willing to sacrifice. But that’s not even the whole story. Then we get Joseph. He doesn’t often get a lot of credit, but there’s something remarkable about him. He had every right within the law to get rid of Mary. He probably could have had her killed. At the very least he could have sent her away and left her with nothing. He owed her nothing. She was his property and he could dispose of her however she wished. But instead he decided to marry her anyway. Not only did he face communal shame, plus the devaluation of “his property”, but he also took on an heir that wasn’t his. And he cared for Mary even though he was getting nothing in return. Talk about a queer family!
Mary and Joseph then become immigrants and refugees. Traveling far from home, unable to return home once they have left, on the run for several years from people who want to have them killed. All the while they continue to live and roam through occupied territory, always at risk, trying to keep a baby safe and cared for. There have been a lot of memes comparing the Holy Family to the Syrian refugees who are on the run. It’s an apt comparison. People fleeing unsafe conditions, trying to find a place to be safe and secure and take care of their children. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare.
See, here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t just a baby. He was destined to grow up to be a revolutionary political leader. This wasn’t some wandering hippie spouting peace and love, this was a justice maker, a rabble-rouser, calling out the rich and the powerful. He called out oppression, sided with the marginalized, and was always, always on the side of the poor and those who were outcast.
If Mary’s response to her pregnancy is any indication we can imagine that Jesus grew up with protest songs as his lullabies, being taught about the need for revolution as he played in the yard, being encouraged to be fierce and stand up for what’s right. He was raised in occupied lands and that occupation shaped his consciousness. He witnessed brutality, poverty, rebellions being violently squashed, and friends and neighbors being killed. His awakening happened and he started to speak out. He started to organize. He started to make things happen.
This is a radical story. It’s about the birth of a leader who will change the world. It’s about the birth of a movement. It’s about a family who raised a child in the face of extreme adversity to be loving and kind and an activist.
This is not a safe story. It’s a story about a family who was (and remains) a threat to political power, to respectability, and to the status quo. That’s the story we should be celebrating all year round because that’s the spirit our world desperately needs. We don’t need more platitudes, more sentiment, more safety; we need boldness and risk, we need activist hearts. We need to change the world.