“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1 51-53 (NRSV)
I’ve thought long and hard about some things I wanted to say during this Christmas and Advent. I thought about just putting some kind of innocuous fluff post out there about everybody being happy and joyful as we gather with friends and family.
But it didn’t seem right to do that.
In fact, it would misrepresent what the Christmas story has come to mean for me.
Think back to a time before Christmas shopping was even a thing. Think back to a time before conquerors bearing the standard of Christianity colonized the western world and destroyed many native cultures and populations. Think back to a time before Constantine converted to Christianity and forever linked the faith of Christ on the cross to a global empire.
Think back to a time when a young Jewish girl, having recently found out that she was expecting a baby in scandalous circumstances, took a trip into the country to stay with her cousin. During this time the Jewish people, like many others, were under the thumb of the Roman empire. They were looking for a messiah, a deliverer, a Christ. They were looking for someone who would help them throw off Roman rule.
It’s also quite possible that Mary and her family didn’t have much. Certainly they didn’t when compared to the Romans. Her future husband was a carpenter, and while maybe that’s not glorious, it was a skilled trade that should provide for her and her child.
Upon her arrival she finds that her cousin, an older woman thought barren, is expecting a baby as well. As her cousin comes out to meet her she greets her with “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” The cousin proceeds to tell the young woman that the baby in her womb leaped for joy at her presence. This is probably confusing to this young girl, Mary. How did her cousin Elizabeth know about all this? One can imagine that they talked quite a bit about all of these things in the days after that!
With all this now done and understood, Mary, this young, Jewish peasant girl sings a song of praise that to my mind is unrivaled in Christian scripture. I quote it in it’s entirety:
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
–Luke 1: 46-55 (NKJV)
I wonder, can you get more anti-establishment than this? Here is this young girl talking about scattering the proud, throwing down mighty kings from their thrones, exalting the lowly of society, feeding the hungry, and turning the rich away empty handed. When you think about it, it’s quite startling.
Now think about this in context of today’s well to do, pro-establishment, pro-money and extreme wealth version of Christianity. How would this message really play today in age where poor people are frowned upon simply as lazy welfare takers and laws are passed in some locales that prevent feeding the homeless in public? How would this message of raising the lowly and sending the rich away empty play to the crowds, the masses of people who will still be, at 3 PM on Christmas Eve, flocking to stores in search of those gadgets or those toys that we think we all really need?
My guess is that the message of Mary’s song would be, and is, brushed aside like a pesky fly as we go our way in our empire-like religious establishment and participate in our corporate Christmas.
The First Christmas gets even more subversive, even more wild that that however.
Some months later, Mary is near giving birth and is in the town of Bethlehem with her husband, Joseph. Joseph frantically seeks a room for them, someplace for them to stay, but is turned away. It is an image that often pops up in the Bible, people unwittingly turning God, turning Christ away. Eventually they end up in a stable, It may not have been a barn or stable in the sense that we see in our modern Nativity scenes. Many houses in that time had a lower room where animals and livestock were kept. Perhaps it was in a room like this. Oral tradition in Bethlehem holds that it was in a cave like stable with animals around.
It is in these surroundings that Mary gives birth to her firstborn son. She gives him the name Jesus, wraps him in a blanket, and lays him in a manger. I wonder if Mary and Joseph really grasped the moment, really realized what had just happened?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it….And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
–John 1: 1-5, 14.
God had become a human being. No really, God, you know, Creator of the Universe, the beginning and the end of all things, had left his throne and came to Earth, not as King born in the finest palace, but as a baby born to a young peasant couple and placed in a manger. It wasn’t the kings and princes of the empire that came to greet him, but a bunch of sheep herders who had been hanging out with their charges. Is THAT any way for the King of the Universe to enter his creation?
Do we lose sight of that at Christmas? Sure we do. Despite the fact that there are multiple manger scenes in many neighborhoods, we often forget about the wonder, the mystery, of the Incarnation of the Creator of the stars of night in lowly human form.
What does that say to me, say to us as we celebrate Christmas? We look around at our establishment and we’re comfortable. The plight of the poor and the oppressed doesn’t seem to bother us most of the time as we go about our business. But it was to these people, the poor couple living under imperial occupation, that Christ came into the world. What does the story, what does Mary’s song tell us about the way that we should look at our own world?
I leave you with some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope, they are judged.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God is in the Manger,” pg 26.
(This post originally appeared on my first blog, “Musings Less Ordinary,” on December 24, 2014.)