Like the winter solstice, which anticipates the arrival of the sun, the Advent season, in the Christian tradition, anticipates the arrival of (a different sort of) light, the son, or in more feminist terms, the child of God. Christmas, if celebrated theologically, honors the beginning of human restoration. In vulnerable, infant, innocent form, we find hope.
In the religious tradition in which I was raised, the arrival of Christ was romanticized. The manger, the three wise men, the animals remained nothing more than the material objects of a story palatable enough for children to reenact. Mary was a vessel and an instrument, then. Now as an adult, who knows more about the brutality of the world, I see that the Christmas story is far grittier. Through Mary’s pain, strength, and labor, a child is born as naturally as all other children, raw and tender and beautiful. This child, however, is born homeless. Within hours, this child and his mother will have to flee the land they know to run from violence, to seek asylum, to save the baby’s life.
At Christmas Eve in that church, we would sing a hymn every year, entitled, “Mary, did you know?” which questions whether or not Mary knew the miracles her son was capable of, the hope and healing he would bring to the world. I found this song grating and inane. “Of course, she knew!” I’d think to myself, for as a great theologian once told me, “Christ was shaped in the faith of his mother.”
The beauty of the Christian story is in Mary’s pain, Mary’s hope, Mary’s heart. The Christmas story is not timeless or life-giving when we focus on the goods of the manger. It is timeless and trenchant when we realize that human rights, human struggle, and hope are as palpable now as they were over two thousand years ago, on the very holy night we celebrate. It is the reminder to hold vigil for the Light even when the world seems engulfed by violence, greed, and deception that brings true constancy and renews trust.
What we celebrate today is the light that persists within darkness. Our story is one of blood, politics, new life, pain, fear, faith, and survival. 2018 has been a year of many trials and tests to all forms of faith. The layers and variations of human suffering we have witnessed within the last twelve months are arresting and heartbreaking. Mary, from within a world in which men were high on power and in which her people remained oppressed (sound familiar?), said, upon the angel’s invitation, “Let it be done to me.” From within the midst of a violent and chaotic world, she said, “let it be” and “yes” to the flourishing of love. She was, not an instrument, not a receptacle, but the keeper of the Light, the mother of the Light, and the midwife of the Light.
Faith can often feel inadequate and antiquated in today’s world, for the world we now confront encourages increasingly that we turn away from one another and toward machines, that we shed the wisdom of the heart for the sake of cold rationality. But faith is an answer to the question of who we are together and the world we create; an answer that when contemplated well chooses justice, love, and peace, for those are so closely knitted to faith they are inseparable.
Today, hold vigil for the Light. Turn toward the Light you find. And if you are celebrating, Merry Christmas.
“In the Bleak of Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti