And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 New Revised Standard Version
Every year, devout Christians embark on a theological journey, delving into the story of Jesus' birth. While the liturgical season of Advent emphasizes the hope, joy, love, and peace offered by Christ’s awaited birth, less attention is given to the contextual realities of His arrival. Within the Gospel of Luke, Mary's experience in giving birth to Jesus offers a thought-provoking perspective on the often romanticized or idealized narrative of Christ's birth. Marginalized and theologically erased from the Christian portrayal, Mary’s narrative becomes overshadowed by her son’s story. Yet, Mary's truth prompts reflection on broader themes of resilience, humanity, and the unpredictable nature of divine intervention. This article seeks to challenge the sanitized theological consumption of Mary's journey.
Mary’s journey begins with being chosen for a divine and significant role, yet one cannot overlook the reality that Mary was a young teenager who had to give birth in a less-than-ideal circumstance. After offering consent to become a handmaiden or servant of God, the self-conscious and frightened teen becomes divinely pregnant. In his work, God Speaks Through Wombs: Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming, Drew Jackson refers to Mary as the Theotokos (Greek - meaning God-bearing). Jackson goes on to write, “Young. Brown. From that side of town. And now, with a baby on the way. You call her blessed? I’ve heard her called worse things…What do they know? She is holy. Theotokos.” Jackson’s depiction of Mary emphasizes the reality of a young brown girl’s ability to participate in creation and deliver salvation to the world.
Shadowed beneath the West Bank, Palestine, south of Jerusalem, Mary gives birth unprepared, underage, and under-supported. With no medical insurance, doula, or epidural, this young girl gives birth in a foul-smelling, decrepit barn. Unlike Elizabeth, she has no friends to hold her hand, no neighbors to comfort her, and the only relief Mary finds is in between the labor pains and cries of her child. By emphasizing the less glamorous aspects of a teenage mother attempting to wrap her first son in torn rags only to lay him in a mal-adapted crib, Luke's account brings attention to the shadows of the text that have been overlooked in traditional depictions. In the absence of celebration, a gender reveal, or a baby shower, Mary is left to be comforted by the angelic message, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” Vulnerable, defenseless, and in a foreign land - one can only wonder how this could be part of God’s favor. Sitting with this truth leads me to ask the question – where are those who respond to the wails of a mother and the cries of children today? Have we become blinded to the needs of children and teens? Are we deaf to the cries of society’s most vulnerable? Have we insisted that God’s favor is contingent upon the suffering of young lives, injustice and inadequate care of the most vulnerable, and displacement of immigrants?
Luke’s Gospel is a starching reminder of the gaps in our theological praxis of salvation. Despite this, Mary wrapped her child in bands of cloth as an act of post-partum care. Mary did not have the luxury of a plush blanket or cashmere throw for her child; instead, the humble Mary used what she had – torn clothes. Given that there are only three instances of swaddling named (i.e., Ezekial 16, Job 38, Luke 7), Mary’s act of swaddling serves as a primary witness to oppression and a hope that comes from holding the Word – even if it must be bound in the rags of life. Weaving together the fragments of fabric from her life, Mary swaddles her child. As a womanist scholar, I see Mary's act of swaddling as redemptive self-love and critical engagement for survival. Irrespective of others’ opinions or her condition, Mary commits to loving herself and her child, ensuring their later redemption. In Daughters of Dignity: African Women in the Bible and the Virtues of Black Womanhood, Laverne McCain Gill highlights love’s significance as the core ethic of the gospel. She contends that love is,
“..the ethic that propels the acts of Jesus, forming the cornerstone of his gospel to a world in need of reconciliation and freedom from spiritual oppression. For Jesus, love is the one act that overcomes adversity and brings about a change in the condition of the oppressed, freeing their spirits so that they might participate in the reign of God.”
Originating with God’s love for humanity and expressed in Jesus’ love through Calvary, Mary’s love becomes the link to redemption. Demonstrating care for humanity, Mary reminds us of our roles as bearers of the Word, to care for humankind. Likewise, Mary offers a perspective that is crucial for humanity's salvation - Mary’s survival indicates a hopeful survival for immigrants, children, and women of color. Naming this reality and opposing the romanticizing of complex societal conditions, Mary’s narrative pushes us, during this Advent season, to be honest regarding the circumstances surrounding Christ's entry into the world and to recognize the ways in which we have aided and/or hindered the survival of the most vulnerable.
Acknowledging Mary's truth grants a profound understanding of the broader truth about Christ and the significance of His arrival. It invites us to delve into the intricacies of social norms, peel back the layers of oppression, and recognize the depth of resilience and faith amid challenging circumstances. Mary's truth is not merely a historical footnote but a living testament to the reality of a young, vulnerable teenager who survived. In embracing Mary's fears, uncertainties, and unexpected challenges, we locate our survival and anticipation for the better. Mary becomes a reminder that the hope inaugurated by Christ's birth is not confined to the past or present and is irrespective of age, class, gender, race, or sexuality – it is a hope extended to all of humanity. As we await the forthcoming return of Christ, may we be transformed by the witness of Mary – a young girl from that side of town, a bearer of the Word, and a survivor.
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