When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.
This year I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. When it’s kind of – but not quite – sequel Go Set A Watchman was released I quickly bought a copy. Both books take place in Maycomb (a fictionalised Monroeville), Alabama, where the author Harper Lee was born and grew up, during the 1930s (TKAM) and the 1950s (GSAW). While both of these books were enjoyable there were a number of occasions of culture shock that were slightly disorienting for someone not familiar with the time period. One of these occasions pertained to how enormously scandalous the pregnancy of an unwed woman was; the shame was of such magnitude that the poor woman felt she had to leave town to lessen the disrepute that would ever after attach itself to her family.
To modern readers like ourselves the real scandal is not in the pregnancy of the unwed woman but in the culture of shame that compelled her to leave her hometown, her family and friends, everything familiar to her for a strange place with strange new people but the same abiding culture of shame. However, what this story does is remind us that at a different time in history from our own to be unwed and pregnant was a great scandal. And this was certainly the case in and around the year 4 BC when Mary found out she was all of a sudden with child while still a virgin.
Yet in spite of all this Mary displayed incredible courage and faith in God: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:28 NIV). It is really quite shocking when we consider that she would have a social stigma attached to her for the rest of her days, not to mention what people would whisper about her future husband, Joseph, after hearing that he was still going to marry her. To say nothing of how her firstborn might be treated even by his immediate family. And then she bursts into song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Even though she faced a life coloured by scandal Mary was able to face it with confidence because of who God was for her. He is the Might One who performs mighty deeds; yet not so mighty as to look down upon the humble who trust him, except to lift them up.
Mary is inspiring, her response to her unique situation is incredible, and her song sublime. She reminds us how God really is for us and how we can be confident in his care. Moreover, she was a human being just like us and that gives us hope that no matter what comes our way it is possible to respond to life’s circumstances in ways that incarnate our faith in God.