An angel comes to Mary and announces that she is favored of God, because she has been chosen to bear the messiah, to be the medium through which the Son of God would become one of us. Mary deserves honor, but she won’t get it, at least not immediately, and not among her own, because when God acts, it often scandalizes religious and rational sensibilities.
I can hear the responses of those in Mary’s community, “I cannot believe that trollop, bringing such shame to her family and to Joseph, her betrothed.” Moreover, if Mary ever did share what was happening, I can imagine the incredulity of any who listened, “Suurrre Mary, an angel of the Lord visited you, God himself impregnated you. Who the hell do you think we are? Pagans! We don’t worship that disgusting seducer of women: Zeus. You have blasphemed our holy, eternal God by ascribing such unbecoming and human behavior to him. C’mon Mary, admit it. You were raped, or you were carried away in a moment passion, but please don’t insult us with your disgusting fantasy of divine intervention.”
After 2,000 years of Christian history, Mary’s story seems commonplace, and thus it is easy for us who profess faith to imagine that had we lived back then we would have had the discernment to recognize the hand of God. Likewise, I think it’s easy for us to think we have some kind of inside knowledge regarding God’s present actions in the world. I am quite sure, however, that God’s actions remain scandalous, and not only to the world, but also to us who believe.
During the remainder of this Christmas season it is this scandal that I want to meditate upon, for I sense that it is critical to genuine faith and spiritual maturity. I have no doubt that the world has deeply influenced my rational instincts and sensibilities, for like the world, I love power. My sense of well-being is deeply connected to the various ways the world expresses power: reason, law, order, religion, government, technology, civilization, decorum, and decency. The world loves these good things, but it does so on its own bright and shiny terms, and thus, they have become idols that function to cover the disorder at the depths of the human condition. By contrast, Mary’s story is that God has chosen the weak things to undermine the strong, and the foolish things to confound the wise, for what is weaker than a baby and more foolish than a virgin birth.
If you were to talk to anyone in my social circle, I am moderately confident they would characterize me as intelligent and moral, for these are things that I strive to be, and have developed throughout my life. As much as I sincerely appreciate these things, however, I also know how much I value them as a means of personal affirmation or self-worth. Like the world, I use them as a cover for the disorder and brokenness at the depths of my being, a depth so deep that it remains beyond anything in my power to lay a hold of, and this is the source of the scandal.
Mary’s story unmasks the false hope of power, whatever form it takes, and I think our response to Mary’s story reveals how deeply we are invested in the power structures of the world. The world rejects Mary’s story as an obvious offence to reason. This is to be expected. Beyond this, however, I think we who are religious also reject Mary’s story, but we do so in a more subtle fashion. We accept that this event happened, for after all, if the Christian God exists it is not unreasonable to think that he who created all from nothing can also conceive a child without the agency of a father. In fact, from a Christian worldview, this can be seen as an act of power. In this way, our affirmation of the story is something akin to the world’s love of power. Our rejection of Mary’s story does not happen along these lines. Instead, our rejection arises from the depths of intimacy and messiness it implies.
God got inside Mary. In overshadowing her with his Holy Spirit, he utilized her body, her biology, her very DNA to accomplish his purpose in the world. Certainly in the tradition and scriptures of the Jews, God was seen as active in human affairs, as a being who drew near to his people, but one who did so in such a way that his majesty and power were clear. What happened to Mary, however, was an involvement of another kind. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world through the panting, sweating, and bleeding of a young woman, who labored in a stable in some backwater town of a marginalized culture. As he emerged from the womb, he was messy with vernix, amniotic fluid and blood, and he had to be wiped clean before he was wrapped in the swaddling clothes so often seen in the pristine manger scenes.
The point is, in the radical act of incarnation, God intimately entered into the messy affair of the human condition. According to the Church’s reflection on the meaning of Christ’s life, through birth, baptism, and finally crucifixion, God, through Jesus Christ, assumed our sinful, broken and rebellious nature, so that from the inside he could overcome it. This may not sound so bad as a grand, metaphysical act of God, and in some measure it isn’t. The scandal comes when the meaning is personally applied, when we discover the incarnation in the intimate details of our own brokenness, rebellion, and sin.
As I mentioned, what I want to contemplate for the remainder of this Christmas season is that God wants to meet me precisely at the point where I want to turn from him. In order to grow spiritually, in order to be real, in order to live by faith, I must learn to not say with Peter, “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Instead, I must learn to embrace, or better yet, let him embrace me in those areas where I am mostly deeply shamed: in my own lust, anger, laziness, and fear. The scandal of Mary’s story is that God has drawn so very near. In the weakness of a baby, and in the frailty of death on a cross, God has met me not in my higher self, not in my striving after righteousness, but in the very messy details of my broken existence.