As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd interrupted him, yelling, “Your mother must be so glad to have born and raised you!”
He called back, “Yes, and those who hear and then do what God asks of them are truly happy!”
At it’s beginning, Luke’s gospel focused on Mary’s having been called and obedient to God in agreeing to give birth to Jesus. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:48), Mary claims that “all generations shall call me blessed.” The woman in the crowd seems to be confirming Mary’s words.
Jesus’ response is that the happiness and fortune Mary experienced was not hers alone. Rather, it’s the result of following your calling: “doing what God asks.” The same happiness is possible for everyone.
I’m not saying that everyone is going to get angelic visits, or hear the voice of God audibly speaking to them. But I think Jesus was convinced that everyone is capable of knowing what they were made to be, who they authentically are. Like the woman in the crowd, though, we get star-struck by the good fortune of others. It’s easy to get so caught up in how much we admire someone else, or wish we could be like them, that we forget how much we have to offer the world ourselves.
If Mary’s story is any indication, saying yes to what we’re called to do takes a huge amount of courage. It’s hard work. Ask anyone who has born and raised a child.
According to Jesus, though, mustering the courage and putting in the effort is the only way to be truly happy. Living vicariously through someone else is never quite the same as living life yourself.
When the time came for them to do the new parent thing according to the rules of their tradition, they took Jesus to Washington to present dedicate him. (It’s written in the law, “Every firstborn boy will be dedicated to God as being special.”) They offered a sacrifice according to God’s policy: “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
It happened at the time there was a man in Washington named Simeon. A righteous and pious man, he was looking forward to the restoration of America, and everyone agreed he was “spiritual.” He claimed God had told him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the new national savior. Guided by the spirit, Simeon came into the National Cathedral. When Jesus’ parents brought him in for their dedication ceremony, Simeon grabbed him up, and started praising God:
Master, I can finally die in peace as you said.
Because now I’ve seen the deliverance You’ve arranged, for everyone will see This light as proof for the unbelievers, And to make America great!
Jesus’ parents were dumbstruck by all this. But Simeon blessed them and said to his mother, “This boy is going to be the cause of the rise and fall of many in America. He will become a symbol of resistance that will expose many a hidden agenda. And it’ll break your heart, too.”
Another aging truth-teller, Anna Phanuel Asher, was always at the Cathedral, praying there day or night, whenever the doors were open. She’d been widowed after only seven years of marriage, and was now eighty-four. She also came up and began praising God and talking about the child, telling anyone who would listen about Jesus.
This is one of those unexpected, awkward moments that happen at baby dedications. Simeon’s famous “song” was not a part of the approved liturgy for the occasion. It was offered whether anyone wanted it or not. It was a rude interruption.
Simeon is like those crazy ultra-nationalist fundamentalists. He was probably there at the National Cathedral that day as a protest to how low the national religion had sunk. And then, for whatever reason (God’s spirit) he picks this couple, to grab their baby, and to say incredible things about him.
All of which, as it turns out, are true.
Except the last thing. In the original, it’s Israel’s greatness Simeon is concerned with. But Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the John Wayne Simeon was looking for.
If there’s any lesson here, it’s that sometimes truth comes to us in unwelcome intrusions. The most truthful part of the service is often the point at which the liturgy is interrupted. The most poignant moments in life tend to be the unwanted and unexpected ones. Mary and Joseph, in all likelihood, were just there to get great aunt Petunia off their backs about how “You’ve got to get that baby dedicated!” Instead, it is here (in Luke’s gospel) that they realize for the first time what the shepherds were talking about.
[Bonus: There’s another more personal moment in this story. It’s when Simeon says to Mary, “And it’ll break your heart, too.” It’s something nearly every parent will recognize. Sometimes when our children follow their calling, their doing so breaks our hearts.]
At that time, an executive order was issued from the White House that there should be a nation-wide census. This was the first such census and was taken while Quayle was Senator of Indiana. And everyone traveled back to their hometown to be counted.
Since Joe was part of the David family, he went from Nowheresville, in Timbuktu, down to the David family’s hometown: New York, New York. He went taking with him his fiancee Mary, who was pregnant. While they were there the baby came, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn child, a boy, and she wrapped him in some old rags and laid him in a storage bin in a garage, because they couldn’t afford a room, even in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, down in Yonkers, there were taxi drivers gathered in a parking lot waiting through the night for dispatch. Suddenly a messenger from God stood there in front of them, and a divine aura rippled through the air all around them. They were terrified.
But the messenger said, “Don’t be afraid. See here, I’ve got great news for you – great news for everyone. Today, in the Bronx, your savior has arrived. He’s the one destined to lead you. And here’s how it’ll go down: you’ll find a baby wrapped in rags in a storage bin.”
Again, suddenly a whole convention of messengers appeared, singing about God, saying: Glory to God in heaven. May God’s favorite people be at peace.”
When the messengers had evaporated back into the sky, the taxi drivers said to one another, “Let’s drive up to the Bronx and see if we can find out what’s going on.” So they drove, fast, and found Mary and Joe, and the baby in the storage bin. And when they saw it, they told the story they’d heard about this child. Everyone who heard it was incredulous about what the taxi drivers said. But Mary remembered all these things, and wondered about them.
The taxi drivers went back, thanking God, because everything they’d heard and seen was exactly as the messenger had told them it would be.
In the midst of the imperial effort to make sure everyone is counted, the gospel unfolds among all the people who are forgotten.
Wherever you live there is someplace in a city near you that has been overlooked by the people who are writing the history books. It’s where the working-class people hang out nights waiting for work, and where the people who can’t afford even the cheapest hotel rooms pass the nights in the back seats of their cars with all their worldly possessions jammed into the trunk.
Wherever you live, somewhere nearby there is a place that teenagers give birth to babies out of wedlock and without health insurance or prenatal care, who still have hopes that their child will grow up to be somebody special, or at the very least won’t end up in a morgue or a prison before age 2, or 7, or 17, or 25. Perhaps they have these hopes for their forgotten children have a chance because some crazy taxi driver on the trip to the emergency room delivery reassured them that it was so.
But what makes the Christmas story so real is that, contrary to what we may think most of the time, the crazy taxi driver relocated from someplace we have trouble finding on a map, and who hardly knows how to speak English – the taxi driver is right about this child. And if God has anything to do with it, she will grow up to lead her people out of the projects.
But for this to happen, the rest of us who hear the story also need to recognize the truth of the taxi drivers’ witness, instead of being incredulous. The rest of us have to recognize and believe who this forgotten one born of forgotten parents really is. In other words, the rest of us have to come to terms with our intentional forgetting, our dismissal, of these places and people as being of little or no real consequence.
The whole gospel that follows is predicated on the the story about how, contrary to what you might hear in some churches, God lives out in the garage and in all the children born in the forgotten places. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel introduced by this story makes any sense if we forget that he began his life as a forgotten child.
This Christmas, here’s hoping we’ll remember longer than for just a starlit evening.
In early September, God sent the messenger, God’s Man, to a town in Galilee called Nowheresville, to a virgin who was engaged to a guy by the name of Joe, who had family connections to the ancient Davidic dynasty. The young woman’s name was Mary. He came to her and said, “Hey there! Aren’t you the lucky one! God’s chosen you.”
Mary was somewhat perplexed by this. She wondered what kind of conversation starts out that way. But then the messenger continued, “Don’t worry, Mary. Really, God likes you. Soon you’re going to get pregnant. It’ll be a boy. Name him Jesus. He’s going to be great. People will call him the “Son of God.” And God will see to it that he inherits the Davidic dynasty. He’ll reign over Jacob’s descendents forever, and his dynasty will be eternal.”
“How so?” Mary asked. “I’m a virgin.”
The messenger said, “God’s breath will breathe into you, and God’s power will surround you. This one to be born will be special. He’ll be called ‘Son of God.’ In her old age your cousin Liz is now pregnant with a baby boy. They all said she was unable to conceive, but now she’s six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”
So Mary said, “Here I am, at God’s service. Let it be so, since that’s what you say.” And the messenger left.
Within the Biblical writings themselves, there are several other stories of women who have miraculous pregnancies. Sarah and Rachel (Genesis). Hannah (1 Samuel). “A Young Woman” (Isaiah). Elizabeth (Luke). In each case the miraculous nature of the child’s conception is an indicator of the exceptional life the child will lead. And, as I pointed out, in Elizabeth’s case, these stories share this pattern with stories from cultures and peoples around the globe. As such, Mary’s story fits right in. The birth will be miraculous, and the child will be the sign of hope fulfilled.
Mary’s story also fits the pattern of a particular subset of those stories, though, in which the birth is not only miraculous but comes as a result of a god, quite literally, intervening in human affairs. Greek mythology is full of these instances. Hercules. Theseus. Perseus. But the Celts also had their story of the divine-human pregnancy in Cuchulain. This story type forms the background for the divinity of the Egyptian Pharaohs and (more immediately to Luke’s story) to the Roman Emperors, and even to the founding of Rome itself. Again, in each case, the conception and birth stories provide a mythical framework for the child to be superhuman. Even our modern culture has its own instances: Shmi Skywalker claims Anakin Skywalker had no father (a child of “the Force?”).
So what makes this story so special, if it’s not the miraculousness of the birth, or the involvement of a god to get it done?
Two words: Mary’s consent.
Rather than a divine rape (whether carried out by force or deception), Mary is consulted. And she consents. She’s not a tool. She’s a participant. She’s a person. And, even though the ancient dynasty is promised, as it always is in these stories of the divine origins of a nation, the child of hope’s main concern will also be not so much for the reputation of the dynasty as for the human dignity of people who are marginalized, used as objects, and overlooked.
In this respect, emerging as it does from the intersection of two androcentric cultures fixated on domination of the weak, Mary’s story is its own miracle.