We’ve entered the season of waiting. This is the time when light grows less, creating a sense of mystery. Every December we dedicate one Sunday to Hanukkah, one to Advent, one to Solstice, and one to Kwanza. This is a spiritually rich month, welcoming us in to a time of reflection. Or, if you’re a child, it’s a month of parties and presents and school vacation. Regardless of how many of these you celebrate, there is no avoiding the decrease of light, or the anticipation of the month slow-walking us into a new year.
Advent is the time of waiting before Christmas. It lasts just about four weeks in the Christian liturgical calendar, leading up to the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born in the spring, but this winter date was chosen both because the symbolism of a light being born into the darkness was too good to pass up and because the early Christians did what so many minority religions do- they link their holidays to that of the dominant culture so as to blend in and not appear different or threatening. So, a few days after the central Pagan holiday of solstice was a perfect time for a birth celebration and the four weeks leading up to it, as the light decreased, were a good way to build up the anticipation.
During these four weeks, Christians talk a lot about Mary, and Mary’s pregnancy. In my experience, UUs don’t care that much about either. We like Christmas. It’s the most universally celebrated religious holiday in Unitarian Universalism. We all want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we’re not that interested in the woman doing the birthing.
I don’t mean that as a critique. Mary has been made into a two dimensional character. In much of popular culture, she’s young, obedient, subservient, compliant. She plays the role in our stories of accepting her fate around Christmas and then crying about it at Easter. She’s portrayed as a virgin mother, married to an old man she never has sex with. Ever. She’s so perfect, there’s actually a doctrine of her perfection and the Catholic Church is so sure about it, it’s one of only two doctrines about which they’ve declared themselves to be Infallible. The other is that she’s is in Heaven. That the Catholic Church has a doctrine of Infallibility is always off-putting. It’s good to remember they’ve only used it twice. Both times about Dear Mother Mary.
Maybe it’s because I’m a mother that I’m fascinated by Mary. Maybe. Or maybe it’s because her humanness is as intriguing to me as her son’s is, and in both cases, those are stories we have to uncover because they aren’t offered as part of popular Christmas lore. Before I get too deeply into this, though, I want to say something I often say around these stories. I like unpacking traditional theologies or mythologies. I like using history to understand why we tell stories in a particular way and I appreciate the new stories that can emerge when we do. And. I also don’t care at all. Mythology isn’t meant to be fact-based. These stories are bigger than life, larger than history. They’re meant to hold up possibility for us to understand our own lives better. The biblical stories weren’t told so a future people would know the facts; they were told to invite us into something more powerful and more revealing than history ever could. That’s the point of mythology.
Millennia later, though, we’ve lost the art of story-telling and don’t understand the necessity of myths in our lives. We’re in a post Enlightenment world and much of this has been lost which means that we’ve reduced the ancient stories to facts and have, therefore, lost much of the Truth. And, for me, it gets distracting because the facts aren’t even the facts. For instance, I don’t care if Mary had sex with her husband if she’s a mythological character. As a theologian, I’m fascinated by that choice of reducing Mary to the role of mother without allowing her to be fully woman, or wife. If I recognize that this is a myth, I don’t care. But, if the story is suddenly being taken literally, then I need to point out to people that it doesn’t say anything in the Bible about Mary not having sex. The word we’ve interpreted to mean “virgin” actually means “young woman” and the stories refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters often. No, that’s not a word used to describe friends or followers. The man was an older brother.
The very traditional story about Mary starts with her conception. The Immaculate Conception, often misunderstood to be about Jesus, is a doctrine that declares that Mary was born without sin. I suppose I could unpack the theology of sin and Original Sin, but for now, I’m leaving it alone, lest we spend all afternoon here. The basic idea is that Mary was born unlike any other human being- she was sinless. This story presupposes that every human being is born stained, with the exception of this one. Later Christian practice will include baptism to wash that stain off, but Mary, or really, Miriam, was Jewish. Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, leaving the later story tellers to look for a way to accommodate their theology. How can god be born to a women stained with sin who was never baptized. Easy. The Immaculate Conception. Something magical happened at her conception which freed her from this otherwise inescapable human reality. Mary starts out perfect, and, frankly, limited and not a little bit dull.
The story continues- Mary is about 14 and is engaged to be married to Joseph. Her age is not unusual for the time. In the traditional story, she’s visited by an angel who tells her she’s going to get pregnant and the father is god and she will name her son Jesus. She accepts her fate. This is why they needed her to be so perfect to start with. Most 14 year olds would say no. No, I don’t think so. I have a plan and a life and free will and Jesus is a stupid name so move on. Find someone else to haunt. But all the paintings of this moment have Mary looking wistful in her royal blues- the colors of a queen. She accepts her bizarre fate, with not a whiff of rebellion. Absolutely anyone who has raised or worked with teenagers knows every word of that story is myth.
Her fiancé is a little freaked out about the whole pregnancy thing, but then he had a dream in which he learned that it was really fine and he should still marry her. He does. He’s not, by the way, an old man. He’s older than she is, but that’s all we know. He’s likely in his late teens or early 20s. A few months into her pregnancy, Mary learns her cousin Elizabeth has given birth after not being able to have children for a long time. She travels about 50 miles to help her cousin and she stays as long as 3 months. She returns home and learns that she and Joseph have to travel all the way to Bethlehem where their familie lives because everyone is being recalled to their ancestral homes to pay taxes and be counted. This is when they begin their trip.
In the most traditional telling of the story, they are traveling when Mary goes into labor. They try to get a room at an inn, but can only find a place to stay in the stable and it’s there that she gives birth. For the record, that piece of the story is so colored by our modern, Western experience it would be unrecognizable to the ancient people who first told the story. First of all, Bethlehem didn’t have that many people in it and everyone returning was from there. It would have been old home week and no one would have told this young couple that there was nowhere for them to sleep. Second, there was no stable. Every house had two floors. On the bottom lived the animals. Then a ladder would bring you to an upper room where people slept. Food was often cooked outdoors and there was no indoor plumbing. “No room at the inn” only meant that there were no free beds upstairs, so they stayed downstairs, in the manger, instead as lots of people through the town likely did.
In popular culture, Mary gives birth to a son, she holds him and loves him and cares for him for a few months and then poof, he’s 13 and in the Temple and poof, he’s an adult with followers and her next job is to stand at his feet and sob as he dies and then to morn with the other women. That’s it. Her life is reduced to a sketch, an “also mentioned”. We find her again centuries later being worshipped by men and women alike, fascinated by her perfection, loving her so much, she’s often considered the 4th person of the Trinity which I think is fitting. The one woman and they don’t even count her even as she creates balance in their little mythological group. But, not the point. The point is that the depth of her story is lost.
In the Christian story, Jesus is born. Jesus, the fully human person who is also fully god, is born. God is born. God is so traditionally powerful. All Knowing. All Mighty. But, this god is tiny. Frail. Vulnerable. He was born. He fed from his mother’s breast. He had diapers. He learned to sit up and crawl and walk. He fell a lot. He was a toddler and a little kid. He learned to talk. He cried. He needed his mother to hold him, to sing to him, to rock him to sleep. He needed his father to hold his hand and hug him when he was scared. Jesus was human and he lived a very human life. He went to the bathroom. He smelled badly when he didn’t bathe, which, let’s just say, wasn’t as often as anyone of us would have liked. He didn’t brush his teeth, so consider that for a moment. And possibly not his hair. He got fevers. Had diarrhea. And he had parents who helped him to understand his body, his culture, prepare for his future.
There’s such rich theology to be mined here. God as not yet. God as Human. Each Human as God. The current vulnerability of God. The joy of called ministry is that there’s time and I’m sure we’ll get into all of these questions.
But, this is the season of Advent, and Jesus hasn’t been born. Let’s resituate ourselves beside Mary, pregnant, first-time mother, travelling, mostly walking, looking forward to being with family. Those last few weeks of pregnancy are uncomfortable. Her feet were swollen. Her back was aching. She had to pee every hour. Getting up from a sitting position would have required help, and let’s remember that she didn’t have a couch.
Incarnation is the theology of God, embodied. Being pregnant, being born, these are base bodily realities. The birth stories were written long after Jesus was killed, so his physical reality was undeniable. He bled to death after being tortured. Imagining him being born was easy. The physicality of it was undisputable.
The thing about being pregnant, in all that uncomfortable truth, is that those last 4 weeks are about the waiting. You just can’t wait for this to be over. I’m sure Mary was feeling it too. She’s done. She wants to meet her baby. She wants to feel like herself again. The anticipation is maddening.
I feel that way a lot lately. Here in the church we have some staff changes coming in early January that have me wondering about what’s next. We’re also changing locations and starting a process of finding a new home in the new year. And, like many of you, I’m watching the covid numbers go up and I’m waiting to see if there’s a wave that shuts us down, sends us back to Zoom. And inflation is on the rise while supply chains freeze up and Russian troops stand on the Ukrainian border waiting. Together, we’re living in a moment of anticipation, of expectation.
It’s this experience, and experiences like it, that make Mary accessible to us. She might be the face of human potentiality, the only example of immaculate perfection, the embodiment of perfect faith, but she’s also human. She’s pregnant. She knows everything is going to change, but she doesn’t know how. She’s travelling, doing the next right thing, living her life, moving forward. And she’s carrying a baby and while she doesn’t know that he’s going to change the world, she does know he’ll change hers.
As the light grows less, we will spend these next few weeks leading up to Christmas waiting with her.