It’s a tradition in my family to have a formal photograph made of each child when they’re between three and six months old. This isn’t just a photo to mark how cute the baby is at that point in time
(although in my completely unbiased opinion, all three of my kids were exceptionally adorable). This tradition involves a "mother/child" photograph.
When I was about six months old, my mother posed with me in a remarkable photo which still hangs in my parents’ home. It’s remarkable not necessarily because it’s of me
, but because my mother and I are posed in the style of every classic image
of the Madonna and child you can think of – my mother is even wearing a blue robe with a matching veil over her head.
I too, posed with my children when each of them was about three months old. I couldn’t quite bring
myself to don the robe and veil; but the warm, fuzzy feeling of a Madonna picture is there nonetheless.
That’s what we’re celebrating these days isn’t it? The warm, fuzzy feeling of mothers and babies,
nativity scenes illuminated by starry nights and halos?
If you read my blog, Peace on Earth?
you know that I struggle with all of those images. I know they’re rooted in our sacred story of faith and I truly love the way Luke tells about Jesus’ entrance into our world. But it bothers me that it’s so easy to turn the whole thing into a Hallmark card.
I think it bothers me because when I think of Christmas, I actually don’t think about nativity scenes at all. Yes, angels play into my thoughts a little, but no stables or shepherds; in fact, not even the baby Jesus. Did I actually say that? No baby Jesus? Well, not exactly; but my secret is that when I think about Christmas, the thing I think about first, before anything else – before I ever even contemplate Jesus – is Mary.
More often than not, year after year, Mary is at the heart of my Christmas reflection. Not the Mary of the whole Madonna and child genre.
The Blessed Virgin Mary who "kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often" (Luke 2:19
) isn’t the one who challenges me to deeper reflection. It’s the Mary who, when given the news that she was miraculously pregnant, boldly responds, "Let it be."
It’s the young woman who in recognizing what God was going to do through her becomes the first to announce God’s good news to the world, the first to proclaim that God’s kingdom of justice would soon be coming near and the first to suggest that God’s new world order would be a radical reversal
of the way of the world.
It’s the Mary who endured the rigors of pregnancy, the disapproving stares of the self-righteous, the complexities of motherhood, the challenges of discipleship and the heartbreak of loss.
Each year, as the rest of the Christ following world focuses on a baby whose birth changed the course of history, I feel almost disloyal because I’m so drawn to Mary. So it was with a bit of relief that I read Christianity Today‘s
cover article on Mary
this month. I really appreciated how Scot McKnight
described her. In contrast to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who "exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us," Scot describes the Blessed Valorous Mary who:
…wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, follows her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and then finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross – not just as a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleeves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not.
The Blessed Valorous Mary
. I like that. That’s the image that comes to my mind when I hear my Roman Catholic friends recite the first few lines of the "Hail Mary"
prayer that is said as part of the tradition of praying the rosary
: "Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee; Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." That prayer is taken from the words that Gabriel spoke to Mary when he first told her that she would become pregnant through the power of God’s Spirit. (Luke 1:26-28
It’s Mary’s response to Gabriel’s news that provides the foundation for the meaning she adds to my faith. Soon after the angel leaves, Mary picks up and heads to a relative’s house – Elizabeth. When she arrives they have an intense moment of connectedness. Elizabeth blesses
Mary, saying "You’re blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” Mary’s response is a song
about the amazing thing God’s doing within her:
Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. (Luke 1:46-49)
When I was growing up, Mary’s song – what we often call the Magnificat – was meaningful to me, but only as one of many Scripture passages read at Christmastime. Of course I thought it was beautiful – this was Mary singing about how great it was to be chosen to be a God-bearer – but its power didn’t hit me until much later, when I realized that there was a significant downside to being a God-bearer. That’s when Mary’s words became more than the personal rejoicing of a poor, pregnant woman and took on the assertive – actually subversive – sound of the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom over and against all the kingdoms of this world.
Remove Mary’s song from the once a year context of mangers and Madonnas and put it into the context in which she sang it – one of oppression by the foreign authority of Rome, one of rule by a paranoid, tyrannical King Herod. In that context, think about the power of her words. It’s not like she sang this song one time to Elizabeth and that was it. That Luke knew about it and decided to include it in his telling of the Jesus story tells me that Mary sang it enough that her words were really heard. That’s preaching at its finest. And what was she preaching?
Mary was preaching subversion, giving every ruler, every person of privilege or power, in her own time and in ours, reason to worry. Listen to what she sang
God shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.” (Luke 1:50-55)
That was pretty strong stuff coming from a pregnant peasant teenager from backwater Nazareth. That God was going to bring down princes from their thrones couldn’t have been good news to Herod the Great, or even to the Caesars in Rome. That God would ultimately scatter the proud and send the rich away empty handed couldn’t have made the priviledged of Mary’s time very comfortable, and it ought to make each of us think twice as well.
Scot McKnight gives us a great challenge this Christmas. He writes:
We can quietly repeat the Magnificat during evening prayers, or we can stand with Mary, sing it full throttle, and declare that justice ultimately will be established. The Herods of this world will be dethroned because Mary’s son, the newly conceived Son of David, has gained a foothold in our world…You can paint the Blessed Virgin Mary as tender and a splendid example of spirituality, or you can celebrate the Blessed Valorous Mary, who heralded a socio-religious protest against injustice in the person of her own Messiah-son.
Obviously, there’s more to the story. The true nature of Jesus’ work on earth had to unfold for Mary as it does for each of us. That it would ultimately involve a cross I’m sure was as overwhelming a realization as any visit from an angel could ever be.
But the rest of the story will unfold in due time. At Christmas it’s enough for me to remember that there was more to Mary than art can convey. She was subversive; she was dangerous; because she knew who Jesus really was – Gabriel had told her. Ultimately, Mary was the one with the first hand info – she alone received it from the angel, she alone encountered Elizabeth, she and Joseph alone knew about the shepherds and the magi. The best part is that Mary didn’t just "ponder all those things in her heart." She took all the details given to her about who Jesus was – Savior, Son of the Most High God – all of what she had seen and heard and experienced, and she passed it all on to us.
As Christ followers, we do well when we remember Mary, the God-bearer. The one God chose to use to release the power of the gospel, the power of God’s new world order. So this Christmas I’ve decided to stop simply reflecting in the quiet of my heart, and start standing with Mary and singing full throttle.