Christmas and the Courage of Mary
I think we have misunderstood Mary, the mother of Jesus.
And by doing so, we risk missing some valuable lessons she can teach us. Looking at Mary’s life, I have come to believe that her story, and the story of the first Christmas, is one of courage. Or, more specifically, courage for the sake of love.
To understand why, we need to set aside our own nostalgia and assumptions about Christmas.
If the things that come to mind when you think of Christmas are snowy evenings, family, cheer, warmth, merriment, gift giving, and childhood wonder, then you have artists to thank. Charles Dickens’ literary art, 1930s Coca-Cola illustrations of Santa, and countless other songs, films, and visual art have reinforced a certain picture of Christmas through the years.
And honestly, I don’t mind. I’m all in on Christmas traditions and nostalgia. But I think those things can get in the way of grasping the reality and enormity of the first Christmas. I’m not just talking about the idea that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
For example, what comes to mind when you read or hear the words “manger scene” or “nativity”?
Usually, nativity images are populated with people who look completely unruffled on what would have been a very chaotic and stressful night. Or else they are completely “other” than us, icons stamped in gold foil with golden halos, like aliens visiting from another planet. We seem to be more comfortable with the “otherness” of the holy family than with the grit and messiness of that first Christmas.
But the decisions that God made about Jesus’ entrance into the world were made with intention. The grit, the messiness, and Mary’s role were not by accident.
What do we know about Mary?
- She was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal had all the commitment of marriage without some of the benefits. It was like a marriage that had not yet been consummated and did not allow any physical intimacy. But, like marriage it was a union that could only be broken with divorce.
- We can assume that she was not wealthy and that she was very young. She was probably 13–15 years old.
- She was visited by an angel and told ahead of time what would happen to her. From this we see that she was “favored” by God. It’s safe to assume that she was a person of character and devotion.
- She was also levelheaded. Her response to the angel’s message was a practical one: “But I am a virgin.”
- After she got pregnant, we know that she left to spent time with her aunt Elizabeth who was now miraculously pregnant in her old age and would soon give birth to Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.
- Mary seemed to understand some of the significance of what was going on. Her hymn of thanksgiving speaks of God’s faithfulness, His heart for the humble, and His actions to scatter the proud and bring down rulers. She knew that her child would disrupt the world.
- When she was nine months pregnant, she accompanied Joseph as he journeyed to report for the census. On that trip she gave birth in an animal shelter in Bethlehem because they couldn’t find (or couldn’t afford) better accommodations.
- Anywhere from months up to 2 years after Jesus was born, court astrologers (called Magi) from the East arrived to give gifts to the newborn king of the Jews. They found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus still in Bethlehem. When Herod heard of these Magi and calculated the dates, he sent an order to kill all of the boys in region of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. Throughout history, this incident has been referred to as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
- Herod’s actions (and a dream from God) caused Joseph, Mary, and their son to flee to Egypt where they lived until it was safe to return. Then, they settled in Nazareth where Jesus spent the rest of his childhood and early adulthood.
That’s the Christmas story we get from the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
There is another version of the story told at the end of the New Testament in Revelation 12. Using Revelation-type language and imagery, it gives a heavenly perspective of a cosmic battle between good and evil. It tells of a woman clothed with the sun who cries out in pain as she is about to give birth. An enormous dragon appears, big enough to swipe away a third of the stars with its tail. That dragon crouches and waits to devour the child the moment it is born. At the last second the child is snatched to safety and the woman flees into the desert…which begins an all-out cosmic war.
That’s how heaven saw the Christmas story: a strategic and daring move by God to save humanity and defeat evil.
So what did it mean for Mary herself to live out this multi-layered story?
- We are told that Mary was “greatly troubled” when the angel appeared to her. In the U.S., children born outside of wedlock is fairly common. For us, Mary’s predicament has no doubt lost some of its force. But, in a close-knit Jewish community in the first century, the news the angel brought could not have been all that welcome. The law regarded a betrothed woman who got pregnant as an adulteress, subject to death by stoning.
- Matthew tells of Joseph graciously deciding to divorce Mary in private rather than pressing charges and having her killed. An angel had to show up and correct his perception of betrayal.
- Mary hurried off to spend time with her aunt Elizabeth, who had recently and miraculously gotten pregnant in her old age. The whole countryside was rejoicing with Elizabeth, while Mary had to hide the scandal of her own miracle.
- We know nothing of Jesus’ grandparents. (How do you think they felt? Do you think they believed Mary’s story that despite appearances nothing improper had taken place? Would you have believed her?)
- Then, Mary gave birth in an animal shelter. The most significant event in human history, the event that separates our calendars in two, probably had more animal than human witnesses.
- When the Magi found them, Jesus was a toddler and yet they were still in Bethlehem, which means they never went home. Why not? Was it because close knit communities don’t take kindly to young boys with questionable paternity?
- Then Mary fled with her husband and her child, and they became refugees in Egypt. For a Jew, Egypt brought memories of God’s power over Pharaoh and the Exodus. Yet Mary fled there, a stranger in a strange land, hiding from her own people and her own government so that she could protect her baby.
Bottom line: Jesus' birth was accompanied by terror and hardship, and he spent his infancy hidden as a refugee in Africa, the continent that still sees the majority of the world’s refugees today.
We learn from the first Christmas that God is approachable. He found a way to relate to humanity that didn’t involve fear, because what’s less scary than a helpless baby? We learn about God’s heart for the poor, the downtrodden, the refugee. He became one himself.
But the thing that stands out to me about Mary—as I try to set aside my own nostalgia and look with fresh eyes—is that Christmas is all about courage for the sake of love.
We see courage in Jesus’ coming to this world as he did, so that he could die for our sins. But we also see Mary’s. How frightening for this young teen to go into labor far from home with no mother, no midwives, no extended family, only Joseph. To give birth unattended in an animal shelter, at a time in history when childbirth was still dangerous. I can’t imagine how alone or scared she must have felt.
And Mary showed her courage from the very beginning. Theologians often talk about how the work of God has two edges, great joy and great difficulty. Mary embraced both. She knew her culture. She knew the dangers and repercussions of what the angel was telling her. She listened to the message, pondered it, then said in Luke 1:38: “’I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.’” In other words, she said, “I’ll do it.”
Mary was the first person to accept Jesus on his terms regardless of her personal cost. Amid pressures and dangers from her culture, dangers in the spiritual realm, and all that was at stake, God entrusted the savior of the world to a 14-year-old girl who bravely stepped into the gap to say, “I’ve got him.”
Isn’t that what all mothers and caregivers are called to do? To step into the gap amid cultural pressures and societal dangers and spiritual forces and hold a helpless baby and say, “I’ve got this one.”
What it would look like for each of us, parent or not, to celebrate Christmas with acts of courageous love? To build that into our own sense of tradition and nostalgia? If you are a parent or a child’s caregiver, you are already standing in the gap for a vulnerable person in a scary world. That’s an act of heroism. But we don’t have to be a parent or caregiver to do that.
Maybe loving courageously would be to reach out to that estranged family member yet again. Or to apologize to that person you know you’ve hurt. Or to counter the isolation of our culture by expressing love to a neighbor. Disappointment is a common feeling at Christmas; it’s a great time to connect with others.
Or maybe, since Christmas is at the end of the year and we will all be making plans and resolutions, this next year can be the year to begin standing in the gap for a vulnerable population.
Our very own Local Good Center provides services in education, help for first generation immigrants, health and nutrition, and so much more. You can find out how to be a part of making a difference in the community, here.
Courageous love is for everyone. It’s at the heart of the Christmas story. One thing I love about Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is how Scrooge woke up with enough time for him to apply what he’d learned. There’s still time for each of us; let’s love courageously and celebrate Christmas well.