This year I’ve spent a bit of time wondering what I really understand of the Nativity story.
There’s so much about it that I love: the traditional Christmas music, the children’s Nativity plays, the delight in lights and sparkling decorations in a time of darkness.
The story is part of our culture in the West that we take it for granted (with all sorts or regional variations). But how have we got here?
The birth of Jesus only occurs in two of the four canonical gospels and many of what we think of as the ‘traditional’ elements only came into being in the late Middle Ages – like there being Three Kings of different ages and ethnicities, and them turning up the same time as the shepherds. And some of what there is we misunderstand. We all think of the Virgin Mary as Jesus’ Mum – but in the Greek of 2000 years ago (that Luke wrote in for instance) the word usually translated as virgin simply means a young unmarried woman. She didn’t become officially a woman not when married, but once she had conceived. Her identity was established by motherhood. But Christian doctrine has taken the ‘virgin’ idea to its extreme and created Mary ‘ever virgin’ - the ultimate impossible girl.
Not that this or the virgin birth actually appears in the gospel account at all, but somehow infuses our memories of the Nativity story. Such oppressive purity becomes a stick to beat women with, and distorts all human sexual relationships. Every Christmas we sing ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ - why on earth would anyone abhor a woman’s uterus? As well ask not to be born.
Even 20th Century theologians who in other circumstances talk of liberation and human dignity don’t help: here is Edward Schillebeeckx: 'It is clear that [Mary] must be a creature of matchless wonder, this Immaculat and Assumpta, with whom even the most physically and spiritually beautiful women in the world cannot in any way be compared . . .'
And Leonardo Boff summarises, 'Mary never lived in or for herself. Mary was a woman ever at the service of others - of God, of Christ, of redemption, of the Church, of the ultimate meaning of history.' Mary, mother, virgin, God-bearer has no identity apart from that which the ‘Church Fathers’ have given her and tradition has repeated.
Set against these this passage from ‘The Woman’s Bible’:
“I think that the doctrine of the Virgin birth as something higher, sweeter, nobler than ordinary motherhood, is a slur on all the natural motherhood of the world. I believe that millions of children have been as immaculately conceived, as purely born, as was the Nazarene. Why not? Out of this doctrine, and that which is akin to it, have sprung all the monasteries and nunneries of the world, which have disgraced and distorted and demoralised manhood and womanhood for a thousand years. I place beside the false, monkish, unnatural claim of the Immaculate Conception my mother, who was as holy in her motherhood as was Mary herself.”
For more thoughts on this read Marina Warner’s excellent book ‘Alone of all Her Sex’
Why have these Nativity stories at all? It feels as if it was important for the early church to ‘legitimise’ their founder. Miraculous births as a result of divine intervention were a conventional ideal – a traditional story told of the god Apollo, of the Persian prophet Zoroaster – why wouldn’t the young religion of Jesus desire a similar founding myth? For the Matthean community fulfilling prophecy was the important narrative – so Jesus must be born in Bethlehem. For Luke’s informants Divine power overcoming the impossible is the key, as the first step I the overturning of the whole order of society. In the culture of first century Palestine an unmarried pregnant young woman deserves brings shame on the whole family, for Matthew this aspect is significant and Joseph’s dream is the Divine response. In Luke’s account the obstacle is the impossibility of conception – for Mary who ‘has not known a man’ and Elizabeth, the barren wife.
And yet, for some women the traditional take is not a barrier. Many women and men have found spiritual growth and strength from Mary as woman, mother and queen of heaven. To take one instance Argentinian women have found in the visit of Mary to Elizabeth (the Visitation) a vision of solidarity which inspires them, as the mothers of the ‘disappeared’ this mutual support of two women brought together by their children is a role model.
I live with the continual tension between the cultural traditions of Christmas and the irrationality of the stories and the constructions put upon them over the years. I love the music inspired by the whole Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity sequence, especially that of the 16th and 17th Centuries; I look forward each year to singing Carols, old and new. But the stories? They give me little to inspire and much to argue with. But I don’t hold them as an article of faith, my understanding of the Divine presence doesn’t rest on the veracity of the gospels stories. For me that’s what they are, stories told to remind us of a deep truth – that Grace is not faceless, that the Creator of the universe is not an impersonal Force in any sense. And that once a fully awakened Divine human walked the dusty road of Palestine. And I for one follow the spiritual journey he exemplified.