One of my most beloved Christmas decorations is a nativity scene, a childhood treasure that I’ve kept, against some fairly significant odds, into adulthood. All the characters are there: the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, all neat and well-dressed and clean, with their light hair and European colouring. Terribly culturally inaccurate, of course, but much loved for all that.
Sometimes though, I look at the blonde-haired, blue-robed fairness of the figure of Mary and wonder. She’s meek, serene: kneeling before the figure of the Christ-child with Joseph standing protectively over her, the picture of gentle, passive womanhood.
And yet, the Mary of the gospels is anything but passive. The Mary of the gospels has backbone. Not only does she have the intellect and audacity to question the angel who brings the news of her impending motherhood (“But how can that be, since I am a virgin?”), she also has the absolute courage to say yes.
And it did take real courage. An unwed mother in first-century Palestine wasn’t just facing the indignity of nasty muttering and rumour-mongering: we’re talking complete ostracism. And without a husband, without a family or a community to support her, ostracism meant destitution. It meant homelessness. Literally, eventually it meant death. And this was one of the better case-scenarios for an unwed mother: she also faced the very real possibility of execution.
And yet, when the angel asked her to bear a child – out of wedlock, with no guarantee that the man to whom she had been promised wouldn’t cast her out to the slender mercies of poverty and abandonment – she said yes. It was participation in community that kept anybody – especially a woman – alive, and that community valued conformity and honour above all as criteria for membership – and yet Mary had the courage and tenacity to step outside of that with – presumably – the full knowledge of all that this choice entailed, of the price that she might pay.
Meek and mild womanhood kneeling passively on the stable floor? I don’t think so, somehow: my hunch is that the Mary of my nativity scene is slightly inaccurate.
I still love my nativity scene though.