Mary, mother of Jesus, hears an angel speak. She has been chosen to bear a special child. Almost immediately she sets out to see her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, at least a five-day and often dangerous, walk. Why? Because the angel also told her that Elizabeth was six months into a pregnancy.
One can only guess at Mary's state of mind. Terror, certainly. A strange vision, an awareness that something was happening to her body, the horror of possibly being pregnant in a world where a non-married pregnant woman would likely be stoned to death ... let us not turn our eyes from her predicament.
Picture her arrival at Elizabeth and Zechariah's home. She would come unannounced, of course. No email or text zaps to prepare her hosts. She'd show up and seek entrance, only to hear that Elizabeth was in total seclusion, refusing all visitors.
Elizabeth, seriously past child-bearing age, carried the stigma of barrenness. Barrenness: the sign of God's displeasure. When the land — or a woman — did not produce or reproduce, everyone suffered.
How to cope with this unexpected pregnancy? She takes no chances. She sees no one. Her sole companions: her silenced husband and her private, quietly silenced fears that her pregnancy is not going well.
Mary insists she be permitted to visit Elizabeth. She quietly enters the dark room, only one tiny window offering light.
After her eyes adjust, she observes Elizabeth, sitting in utter stillness, her hands resting on her swollen belly. Signs of worry, perhaps even tears, emphasize her age-lined features. The life inside her womb has stilled. She feels no movement. She fears an imminent stillbirth.
Mary softly greets her cousin. Suddenly, Elizabeth opens her eyes, her face alight with hope again. For upon hearing Mary's voice, the child inside Elizabeth's body begins to move with energetic vigor.
The old woman, face now awash in tears of joy, embraces her young, terrified cousin. Then, looking at her straight in the eyes, Elizabeth confirms Mary's pregnancy and the hope that her baby will bring to the world.
Finally, Mary, fear temporarily set aside, rejoices in her own pregnancy.
At that point in history, the nation of Israel barely survives under a series of foreign occupations, the latest from Rome.
Cruelty rules. So does near-starvation and general hopelessness. Only the irredeemably corrupt and the politically well-connected survive, perhaps even thrive.
And so Mary offers her words of praise to God, including these:
My soul magnifies the Lord; His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 50-53)
If you just skimmed past those words, thinking them too familiar for lingering, I suggest you read again, slowly.
Mary proclaims that the proud, the powerful and the prosperous will tumble from their high places. The political order will topple; the currently well-fed will become the future hungry while those who subsist on the edge of starvation will find themselves with full tummies.
In other words, Mary reveals that the entrance of the Savior into the world is a subversive act on the part of God. God is initiating a social revolution against unjust rule. These words shout: "Justice for the masses!"
To shepherds first comes the birth announcement. Another sign of subversion: shepherds have no power or privilege, only poverty and privation.
They live isolated from family. They experience substantial societal exclusion, perpetually pronounced unclean by Levitical law, forever outside the camp.
To them: "Good News! Peace on earth and goodwill to all!"
When the lowest of the least hear the message, they rejoice. When King Herod, the highest of the most, hears the message, he reacts with fear.
Herod has brains. He knows that good news for all was not good news for him or his cronies. Most reasonable survival technique? Mass slaughter of the innocents. Kill any child who could be the Promised One. Stop the subversion immediately.
Oh yes, the Incarnation, the taking on of flesh, the real story of Christmas is much more than some sweet scenario of a sanitized birth scene. Indeed, this is a subversive act, one directly aimed at the political power of the time.
At Christmas, God announces: "My rule is one of justice and mercy, especially for the poor, the powerless and the hungry. It's not particularly good news for those who oppress the powerless, keep the poor in even greater poverty, and refuse to feed the hungry."
It's no wonder those same rich and full ones eventually insist upon the execution of Jesus. They had to shut him up before it was too late.
Email questions to the Rev. Christy Thomas to firstname.lastname@example.org, "like" her Facebook page at Christy Thomas or message her on Twitter at @christythomas, or by mail to: The Thoughtful Pastor, 3555 Duchess Drive, Denton, TX 76205.