A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to share on Advent at my place of work. As I studied the passage where Elizabeth greets Mary, I was reminded that the story of the birth of God is not a nice story. We have sanitised it beyond belief – literally. We sing carols like Away in a Manger with lines like ‘no crying he makes’. Really? He’s a baby for goodness’ sake. Babies cry. Don’t get me wrong; Away in a Manger is a beautiful carol but some of it betrays the smelly, shocking, subversive story of the birth of the Saviour.
A colleague of mine has recently spoken about Mary becoming pregnant and the dread she must have been feeling, thinking ‘how do I tell Joseph about this?!’
She probably ran off to her cousin Elizabeth with mixed feelings. She would have had the typical joy of being an expectant mother, but probably more so the dread of how she would explain this to everyone.
I reckon the scene in the picture opposite wouldn’t have been when they first saw each other. If this was a photo, it would have been taken well after Elizabeth had comforted Mary with her sense of joy at the whole occasion. Mary wouldn’t have been smiling much when she first turned up to see Elizabeth.
When we look in a bit more depth at passages like this, we soon see that the whole Christmas story speaks of scandal. As I mentioned, this is not a nice story. The images we have of the nativity are of gentle baby Jesus in the manger with fluffy farm animals gathered around. But consider the story. An unmarried young woman, a virgin, gets pregnant. And then we have the story of her cousin, an older woman, known as being childless. The Jewish culture of the time regarded being childless as a misfortune; it showed that you were cut off from God, and it was therefore grounds for divorce.
Despite all this, we have the joyful outburst from Elizabeth, followed by the even more amazing cry from Mary, known as the Magnificat. Their response was quite different from that of their menfolk. Joseph must have been thinking, ‘what do I do with Mary, now that she’s pregnant?’, and Zachariah was quite literally struck dumb at the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Us blokes tend to be more skeptical than our women and we can learn alot from them.
So, it is into this setting of scandal, disbelief and unspeakable joy, that we have the birth of God. Born in a horse’s trough because there was no room at the inn – rejected from the day he was born. Some years ago, Joan Osbourne asked the haunting question, ‘What if God was one of us?’. She was dead right in her lyrics – ‘just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home…nobody calling on the phone’. The God who is rejected and crucified by a brutal Roman regime is the God who is resurrected and defeats the powers of evil to establish his kingdom – creation reborn. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.