There’s Something About Mary

maryLuke 1

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[b]29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[c] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

An aspect of the Christmas story that I have to admit is a bit vexing to me, is the whole part about the virgin birth.  My own tradition, the United Church of Christ, doesn’t call for Christians to believe or not believe anything in particular about Jesus’ mother’s sex life.

Our statement of faith says:

This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God.“We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

 

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,and set before each one the ways of life and death.

 

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

 

You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.

 

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

 

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

 

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

 

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

 

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.

Amen.”

As you can see, there is no dotted line to sign in my tradition about whether or not Mary really had not had sex before or after getting pregnant with Jesus, let alone if Jesus was conceived by some miracle of God without Joseph (or some other man) being God’s instrument in it happening just as we each are conceived — through a miracle of God involving not just our mother but also some biological father.

mary-6This is a helpful thing for me.  Though I grew up believing very firmly that through a miracle of divine intervention Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb without a man being brought into the picture – after all, if God can create the world out of nothing in six days, how hard can making one human being be! –  like most progressive Christians, I am now deeply disinterested in the question of what sex life Mary did or did not have.

This fact that in the United Church of Christ we don’t have to ponder too deeply the sex life of Jesus’ mother in some ways sets us apart from many other Christian communions.   Many, such as the Episcopal Church, use the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed as their statement of faith.  These statements, and many denominational statements of faith modeled after them, ask church members to confess they believe in a Jesus who was born of a Virgin, Mary.

 

Even with this freedom, one thing does bother me in our progressive Christian circles: often when we approach Christmas, our focus is upon what we don’t believe.   We focus on how difficult it is to hold up the idea of virginal conception in a scientific worldview.  We talk about how Questionsmany problems it creates in our view of women to believe in this virgin conception.  We will talk about how the Hebrew text of Isaiah from which Matthew and Luke shape their story doesn’t even use the Hebrew word for virgin, but instead young woman. We point out how clearly Isaiah’s words refer in context not to some virgin but to the young bride of a ruler in Isaiah’s day who would conceive in the average way a child whose birth portended hope for the nation.

All good points, I guess. But not really the point. 

These all are about what either we don’t believe or we do not think is necessary to believe.  The fact is, though,  literal or not, Matthew and Luke masterfully wove stories depicting Jesus’ birth in terms of virgin conception.    Why?

I want to make a stab at some lessons this story teaches us which remain true and life-giving even if, as many progressive Christians do, we do not believe it matters whether or not Mary had an active sex life or not.   In fact, these lessons remain true even if we believe she did conceive Jesus through an active sex life and would also be just as true if she was literally a virgin.

mary-5First, this story shows us the path that trumps empire.  Empire is a term used for the systems of oppression by which we use force, control, to lift up a small group of people while pushing down many others.  In Jesus’ day this was literally done by an emperor with an empire, the Roman Caesar.  His wealth and power came through crushing under the militaristic boot average people throughout the world.  One quote about the Roman empire said that they lay waste to a place, creating a desolation, and call it peace.

In our day and age, we have our own systems we create which prop up a small group of people in ways that crush under the heel of the system those who do not fit that mold.   Structures of white supremacy that have lingered largely unchanged in our society push down and marginalize people of color.  Patriarchy has a deep hold on our society, disempowering women and also in important ways damaging children and even men.   The commercialism of our capitalist society again also benefits only a small portion of our population, leaving others in a rat race to just keep up.  

To me this way of empire is depicted well by the folk song “the Crow on the Cradle”:

“The sheep’s in the meadow

The cow’s in the corn

Now is the time for a child to be born

He’ll laugh at the moon

And cry for the sun

And if it’s a boy he’ll carry a gun

Sang the crow on the cradle

 

And if it should be that this baby’s a girl

Never you mind if her hair doesn’t curl

With rings on her fingers

And bells on her toes

And a bomber above her wherever she goes

Sang the crow on the cradle

 

The crow on the cradle

The black and the white

Somebody’s baby is born for a fight

The crow on the cradle

The white and the black

Somebody’s baby is not coming back

Sang the crow on the cradle

 

Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save

To build you a coffin and dig you a grave

Hush-a-bye little one, never you weep

For we’ve got a toy that can put you to sleep

Sang the crow on the cradle

 

Bring me my gun, and I’ll shoot that bird dead

That’s what your mother and father once said

The crow on the cradle, what can we do

Ah, this is a thing that I’ll leave up to you

Sang the crow on the cradle

Sang the crow on the cradle”

Jesus’ teachings and example model a different way than both systems.  He teaches us to lay aside violence and vengefulness, embracing a radical commitment to building bridges across the divide.  He encourages us to live simply, giving generously to those around us.  He encourages a path not of acquisition but servanthood.   He models radical welcome and inclusion in his table fellowship.

mary-4In the ancient world, stories of virgin births were not rare.  In Buddhist circles, there are multiple accounts of Siddhartha Gautama’s birth in which he is born to a virgin as a sign he will become the Buddha.   In the Roman Empire, various emperors are said to be born of a virgin and one of the Roman gods.  In almost all of the various virgin birth stories this is a coded way of using story to proclaim the way of life and pronouncements of the figure born miraculously are authoritative.  They are the ones who show the way to the blessed future for which we are made.

Ultimately, just as the book of Revelation is a book which in a coded way pokes at the way of the warmongering Roman empire, suggesting instead the path to a lasting future is through the example of the peace-making Jesus, so the virgin birth story is a profound political statement.  It suggests the way ahead for us is not through the empire’s crushing of the enemy, the outcast, or the forgotten but instead through living out the example and teachings of Jesus which embody peacemaking, simplicity, love of neighbor, love of enemy, forgiveness, radical servanthood.   These choices are the pathway to healing and true life, not just for us but for the community as a whole.

To me this alternate path of Jesus, when lived out in community, is beautifully pictured by the folk song “Sing John Ball”:

“Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord
When we are ruled by the love of one another
Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord
In the life that is coming in the morning

Chorus
Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning
And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark
For the life that is coming in the morning

Eve is the lady, Adam is the lord
When we are ruled by the love of one another
Eve is the lady, Adam is the lord
In the life that is coming in the morning
Chorus…

All shall be ruled by fellowship I say
All shall be ruled by the love of one another
All shall be ruled by fellowship I say
In the life that is coming in the morning
Chorus…

Labour and spin for fellowship I say
Labour and spin for the love of one another
Labour and spin for fellowship I say
And the life that is coming in the morning
Chorus…2x “

mary-3

A second meaning of the virgin birth story is the blessing of our bodies.   God is pictured coming to earth in a body like ours, through a woman’s body. Flesh and bones and blood.   This suggests that no longer ought we to look for God as far off, distant, high up in the sky.  Instead in the stuff of life itself – our own bodies, the bodies of those around us, our every day life – God is present.  Our eating, drinking, sleeping, ironically sex and love, are holy.  Friendship, family, romance, is sacred.   Work and sleep, recreation and service to others, neighborliness, and our own neighborhood are holy places.

Peter Mayer pictures this so well in his song “Holy Now”:

“When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

mary-1Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now “

 

A final meaning of the Virgin birth story is a call to recognize and care for women and children.  While studying up on Matthew’s retelling of the coming of the Magi for an Advent Bible study I was helping leading at the church I attend in Chapel Hill, I came on this powerful quote:

Frankincense and myrrh have been used for medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years in places like India and Saudi Arabia.  I do not pretend to know anything about their effectiveness.  There are several websites that you can find with articles extolling the virtues of these ancient oils and resins.  What you and I think about their effectiveness in healing though, is inconsequential.  What seems clear is that men from the East might have understood these two gifts to have medicinal value.

 

tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kec“Mary gave birth to a son.  Though we often sing “Silent Night,” anyone that has been anywhere near the birth of a child knows that there is nothing silent about the experience.  Giving birth is a messy and dangerous.  Today a mother dies in childbirth once every two minutes.  In many parts of the world, it is the most dangerous thing a woman can do.  According to the Lukan account, Mary gave birth in a stable, surrounded by animals, with no midwife.  She gave birth in what we would be considered, even then, deplorable conditions.  I’ve written before that the unnamed miracle of Christmas is that Mary survived.

What I have not noticed before this year, is that the reason she survived might have come in the gifts presented to Jesus by the magi.

“To a modern reader, the gifts of the Magi seem strange and impractical.  To explain these peculiar gifts, many have placed dubious symbolic meanings on them.  Instead, I feel it much more likely that these gifts were extremely practical.  Notice that Matthew says that the magi “Saw the child with Mary his mother, and then knelt down…”.  These gifts might have saved Mary, and indirectly Jesus himself.

mary-2“We would be good to take note that Mary’s “Baby Shower” was an act of valuing the life of a woman.  Though Mary gets the short end of the stick through much of the book of Matthew, this act of gift-giving is a reminder of how important a mother is to a child.

“Like the Magi so long ago, we may pay homage to the newborn King by making sure his mother survives.”

The call of the Virgin birth story is a call for us to recognize in every child that is born a sacred worth, for however a child is conceived it comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is a call for us to recognize in every woman a bearer of God, just as Mary bore God to the world, no matter her sex life.  And to do this we need to work to build communities in which women’s rights, voices, and health are prized and they are respected.  We need to build a world in which every child, at every stage of life – from day one to the time they lay on a hospice service like where I serve as a chaplain in their autumn years – are honored and respected.   Recognizing this sacred worth of all persons, especially children and women, is key to the Christmas story.

I would love to hear from you what meaning you derive from the story of the Virgin Birth, whether you take it literally or, as I do, as a deep and abiding symbol.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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