Imagine that you are young and a second-class citizen under Roman rule, pregnant outside of wedlock, with claims regarding your child’s paternity that make some pity you and others shake their head in disgust at your perceived desperation to fabricate an excuse. You and your fiancée stay gracious amidst the judgmental stories that filter through your small community. You hug your belly and tell your unborn son not to worry, you love him very much.
Your son is born and the circumstances surrounding his birth alarm government authorities, who then order a mass execution of all the boys his age. For the second time in your young family’s life you are all in transit once again, seeking shelter, strangers in a strange land. You think of the words that were spoken over your child when you dedicated him in the temple:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
You treasure every moment of your child’s strange conception and existence. In your heart, you ponder his mystery. You and your husband have more children and build a life together, and three decades pass quietly.
Then there are the three years that strike your family like lightning: Your beloved firstborn child begins to speak words that cause the hearts of the hearers to burn, and turn powerful men against him. You are beside yourself with joy and some trepidation; you are seeing old promises come to pass. Your son is filled with visions of a Kingdom that makes men walk away from fishing nets and ledgers to follow him, makes curious women risk their lives to learn and then repeat what he teaches. In a land where your people have lived under empire and splintered religious authority, your son is hailed as the king who will build a place for your people to live and worship at last.
And then he is taken to trial as an innocent man, found guilty, and sentenced to public execution. The memories of the angel visit, of your firstborn son’s babyhood, of the holy mysteries you pondered as a young mother turn to ashes. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” You weep as he is marched to his death in front of the crowds that once venerated him. No angels, no kingdom. Your son is given a splintered cross, stuck in a rotting hill.
You could not have foreseen any of this when he was conceived. You had the prophecies and the angel’s words, but no anticipation that this was how they were to manifest. This is not the future you were imagining when you sat by a manger in your youth, gazing at your infant son.
There is more to the story, I know. But this is what pierced me as we celebrated Christmas with my daughter for the first time. Truly, truly, God became flesh and dwelt among us. Truly he knows our sorrows. When he says he has overcome the world, the statement stuns me with its finality, as I come to understand more of what he and his family have seen of it.
In a year during which I have felt wracked with guilt over our country’s treatment of migrant families, our criminalization of black and brown bodies, our mercilessness towards the very young and the unborn, our austere provisions for pregnant women, our terrifyingly casual administration of the death penalty, I find myself reading the nativity story with tears of recognition. Lord. Savior. You bore the weight of all our transgressions, and still managed to live in this world as one who is not complicit in our sin, but as one who finally mapped the path to righteousness.
And Mary, mother of God — how I have misunderstood the meaning of your life and your ministry. You did for Jesus what he was about to do for the world, in keeping with Biblical patterns of inheritance from generation to generation. Your gave yourself to a promise that was frequently misjudged and misunderstood. You gave birth. Out of your broken body, there came life.