Wednesday, December 22, 2010


"In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth."
(Luke 1:39-40)

I’ll never forget the “children’s sermon” that my Old Testament seminary professor gave us about the importance of doing a "close reading" of Biblical texts, especially those we think we already know. He had two copies of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which he read aloud to us. The poem was written in 1822 by Clement Clark Moore. He had an early edition of the book as well as a modern re-printing. What he wanted us to pay attention to were the illustrations. According to Moore, St. Nick is “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” In the early editions that’s just how he is pictured — in an all white fur outfit covered with soot, “with a little round belly.” The image matches Moore's words precisely.

Now fashions change of course, and these days as everyone knows, St. Nick has gone red, with white fur trim. And like many of us he’s put on some weight. In the later version of the book he had, what happened is that the text is essentially ignored: the illustration matches the "Santa" we all love from the mall. What’s interesting, however, is that most of us don’t even notice. We don’t even register the disconnect between Moore's words and the more modern image.

Now that isn’t a huge deal. But it’s an illustration that has always stayed with me, because what my teacher said next was the real point: most of us have preconceived images dancing in our heads, especially around Christmas time. We think we know Mary and Joseph and the babe and the shepherds and the magi. We carry around pictures in our heads of that manger scene that are shaped more by pageants and Christmas cards than by the birth narratives in the Bible. So we look in vain to find an innkeeper, for example, or the number of wise men who came from the east. When we already have an image in our heads, however, it’s easy for us to make the text fit our image rather than adapting our images to what the text in fact says.

A similar problem occurs when we try to speak of this young Jewish girl, Miriam in Hebrew—or Mary if you prefer. (So long as we remember that the text precedes her becoming a Roman Catholic!)The Church has alternatively said too much or too little about Mary; much of it shaped by our own agendas.

But before she was the BVM, she was just a kid — probably no more than fifteen years old. She is called by God through the very same pattern that we can find throughout the Old Testament: whenever God needs to have a job done, from Abraham to Moses to David to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” She is, in turn, fearful, confused and resistant. The angel presses on and tells her that she’ll have a baby. She responds, “how can this be?” The angel insists it can be because with God all things are possible and then Mary sings, “Here I am Lord…” Then she runs off to see her cousin, Elizabeth.

Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which in truth is what we are all called to be. We, too, are called to say “yes, Lord” and let Christ be born into a broken world in and through our words and deeds. But she was first. Therefore she is a model, a witness of what faith looks like.

The life of faith is not without its questions and its struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. Mary’s humanity is crucial—for it is precisely in all of her vulnerability and youthful bravery that we see why she matters. If she can do this then maybe we can too.

1 comment:

  1. I remember assigning my sixth grade church-schoolers the task of locating common Nativity images in the Gospels and recording their chapter and verse. One young boy, after looking fruitlessly for the passage that verifies Mary's mode of transportation into Bethlehem, looked up and said, "It may not be in here, but it's a well-known fact that she rode a donkey to Bethlehem!" And indeed, it is.