Scripture: Luke 1:39-55
Back in 2006, after Caroline and I decided I would begin a leave of absence the following July, we started to do some house-hunting. One townhouse-style condominium we looked at was exactly what we were looking for. After submitting a bid, the realtor informed us that the homeowners had gone with another buyer. Knowing that we liked those particular units, the realtor knew of one that wasn’t on the market yet but would be very soon. She contacted the homeowner and set up a visit. Because it wasn’t on the market, it hadn’t been prepped for showing. Even though the realtor gave us a heads-up, the level of messiness we walked into was still surprising. Afterwards, Caroline seemed even more excited about that place than the one on which we’d made an offer. She later told me that despite its terrible presentation, she could tell that it had “good bones.” In other words, she was able to see beyond the mess to what was really there.
This evening, many of you will be enjoying a Christmas dinner and program down in Wesley Hall. Most likely, you’ll be sitting next to or across from someone in our church family, very likely someone you know or, if you don’t know them personally, have probably seen at our Sunday worship. By and large, the people you’ll see here this evening will be folks much like yourselves. If I were to ask you to look around, either here in the sanctuary this morning, or if you’re worshipping online, the room where you’re currently at, or at tonight’s dinner, and ask you to see Jesus in those persons around you, you’d probably be able to do that fairly effortlessly. When we’re with trusted friends, beloved family members, or people who clearly share our faith in Christ, it’s not difficult to see Jesus in them.
But what if I were to take you into Jackson prison and sit you down face-to-face with the most hardened criminals there are and ask you to do the same thing – see Jesus in them?
What if you and I found where many of the homeless people in Port Huron hang out and paid them a visit, and again I asked you to do the same thing – see Jesus in them?
How about the person passed out behind a dumpster on account of a drug overdose? Or the mother who’s abandoned her baby? Or the father who’s sexually assaulting his daughter? How about the Russian soldier? Or the U.S. senator who enthusiastically supports every piece of legislation you personally abhor?
The fact is, it’s easy to see Jesus in people who think like us, who see the world through a similar lens, whose values parallel our own, and whose lifestyle and life choices reflect what we consider “good,” “wholesome,” “godly,” or “ethical.” But those whose lives are on a different track, especially if the choices they make in life are destructive of self and/or others, it can be more challenging to clearly see Jesus in them. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to see beyond the perceived messiness of a person’s life to what’s really there.
Would you agree with me that we probably have a very “romanticized” view of the Christmas story? Of Joseph and Mary’s life, and the life into which Jesus was born? Over the past 2000+ years, Mary’s received a lot of attention by the church. For example, she’s the object of countless paintings. Here are a few of them.
This one’s by Italian Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi called “Madonna and Child.” Notice her blond hair. Notice how it’s beautifully done. Notice her beautiful blue dress. Notice the ornate chair she’s sitting on. And, of course, notice Jesus’ wavy blond hair as well.
This one’s by the same artist, entitled “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.” Notice that she’s sitting on a throne of sort. In this painting, she’s literally Royalty.
Here’s a typical depiction of Joseph and Mary making their way to Bethlehem. What’s Mary’s means of transportation? A donkey.
One more. I don’t know who painted this or when it was done, but what I want to point out is that you get the sense that they’re living in their own home, what today we call a “single family dwelling.”
So, let’s quickly talk about these depictions of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. First of all, we all know Mary didn’t have blond hair. She was from 1st century Palestine, and they had dark hair. Also, her skin color would have been darker in real life, and not white as it’s often depicted in paintings. In terms of her clothing, it’s highly unlikely she ever wore a beautiful, blue, velvety dress—especially when Jesus was an infant. Nor would she have had such a beautifully ornate chair in her home. And speaking of home, based on what we know about what life was like for 1st century Jews living in that part of the world, they most likely shared a home with extended family—many people living under the same roof. And never would she have been seated on a throne like a queen. Finally, although it’s only an educated guess, it’s more likely that Mary walked alongside Joseph on their trip to Bethlehem. Most likely, they very poor and could never have afforded a donkey, let alone the food to feed it along the way.
Here’s what is very likely the truth about the real, historical Mary.
- She belonged to the peasant class, which eked out its living through agriculture and small commercial ventures like carpentry, the profession of both Joseph and Jesus.
- This group made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the Roman state and the small privileged class.
- Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest).
- Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.
- It’s doubtful that she knew how to read or write, since literacy was extremely rare among women of the time.
- Contrary to the way she’s usually depicted in paintings, it would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13 or 14 years old. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant, of giving birth in a stable, of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years.
- On account of the silence around Joseph’s life in the Bible, it’s assumed that Mary lived the majority of her adult life as a widow, which was extremely difficult in those days.
- She was no stranger to extreme hardship and violence, even watching her own son being executed by the State as a criminal.
So, all of this is to say that Mary’s was a life which included much in the way of oppression, poverty, violence, and what we would in inequity.
These days, such factors in a person’s life can make for a hardened, grizzly, even socially awkward person. It’s not inevitable, but they can contribute to abusive behaviors, whether of people or drugs or alcohol. And the challenge for many if not most of us—who silently pride ourselves in being “good,” socially-acceptable, and ethically moral—is to be able to see Jesus in many of those whose lives don’t look like ours. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re suspect of them. We don’t trust them. We’re uncomfortable around them. We may be kind to them, but we’ll keep an eye on them because, well…you know.
When it comes to Mary, what most of us are most naïve about is her politics. And guess what? She had a political viewpoint. And she shared it. It was her manifesto—what we call “the Magnificat” (the name of which is based on its opening line, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”). From what she said, it’s pretty clear what her driving life-principles were. Listen closely and try to hear “between the lines,” because what she says reveals a lot about how she saw both herself and how she believed God acts upon this world. I’ll add key words that help bring out the meaning.
“[God] has looked with favor on the low status of [me,] his servant. From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me [his lowly servant]. Holy is [God’s] name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, [to those] who honor him as [Yahweh]. He has shown [godly] strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations [those who are wise in their own eyes, self-important, highly educated and who look at us with suspicion]. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed….”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
In the spirit of Bonhoeffer’s take on Mary’s manifesto, she might even be labeled a radical. Who would call her that? Those in power. Those whom her words condemned. Those whom she claimed are at odds with God. Who are they? The rich, the powerful, the movers and shakers of society. The somebody’s of this world.
Is it possible to see Christ in Mary the radical? Mary the pushy? Mary the obstinate? Mary the revolutionary? Mary the poor, lowly, powerless, and in the eyes of the world, a nobody?
Elizabeth certainly saw God in her. As soon as she opened the door and saw Mary standing there, the baby within her own womb leaped. Suddenly inspired by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blurts out, “Mary, God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry…. Happy [are you] who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to [you]” (Luke 1:42, 44). God’s promise to Mary was that he would personally impregnate her with his Son, and that she, a nobody to the world, a young girl living in poverty and in world of violence and disparity, would give birth to none other than the Savior of the world.
If the likes of Mary were to come to our attention today, would we be able to clearly see Jesus in that person?
The good news is that we can! But we have to allow ourselves to see others through God’s eyes. That’s the tricky part. When we view every human being—every human being—as a child of God, we can see God in them, even if they don’t see it in themselves. If we can see them through God’s eyes, we can see their intrinsic value, we can no longer look upon them as wholly other. In essence, they become brother or sister. Imagine what our nation, let alone the world, would be like if we could truly see Christ in the other who doesn’t seem very Christ-like on the outside. At least, not by our standards. As our Advent journey winds down this week, perhaps our prayer needs to be this, and would you pray with me:
Father of all—all persons, not just me, not just those who think and act like me, but all persons—the broken, the abused who’ve become the abusers, the soldier who protects as well as the soldier who rapes, the dictator as well as the godly leader; Father of all: give me eyes to see Christ in those for whom Christ died: everyone! Remove the film over our hearts which keeps us from seeing them as unworthy of your love, undeserving of your grace, and unfit for the Kingdom. Remove the log from our eyes, dear Jesus. Pierce our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh so that we can look upon all with love instead of suspicion. Help us to see you as Mary saw you: as a God who shows partiality to the poor and powerless. Enable us to be agents of grace who will never rest in this life until we’ve done all within our power to make justice, true justice, a reality in this world. God, give us the eyes of Jesus to see everyone as he sees everyone. Amen.