© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
View Related YouTube video shown during the service. Click Here.
Many of us are able to conjure in our minds a vision of what a perfect Christmas would look like. In these mental images of ours, we might think of our extended families gathered together on Christmas morning, a tree is lit with abundant and beautifully wrapped presents underneath, stockings are hung with care, a generous breakfast awaits the conclusion of gift unwrapping, and we are all smiling and laughing. Each person receives the exact gift they need or want. Later in the day, a large meal awaits as everyone sits down to Christmas dinner. And if we think about how such a perfect day results, many of us often assume that it is our moms or our wives – if we have one – who has engineered these idyllic scenes. A woman, we often assume, has done most of the Christmas shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning and decorating. Indeed, many in our culture often take it for granted a woman has been in charge of choreographing family Christmases. And, perhaps unfortunately, in many families that is probably true.
The same holds true, I believe, for our vision of the original Christmas. Whether we believe the Biblical version of Christmas or not, we nevertheless think of the manger scene, with Mary, Joseph and an infant Jesus gathered in a barn. Mary has humbly and obediently consented to be the mother of god, she has married Joseph, travelled with him several hundred miles on foot to Bethlehem – while nine months pregnant, and she then endures labor and birth in the company of donkeys. Images of this scene and countless Christmas messages implicitly tell us that Mary is the perfect woman, the perfect mother, the pure, virginal, holy, subservient, docile, and faithful female.
In this December series of ours on various holiday perspectives, last week we examined Christmas through the eyes of suffering. How might we reconcile the hurts many of us feel at Christmas-time with the prevailing notion that we are to be happy and joyous in this season of celebration? Today, I want to perhaps burst another holiday bubble of ours – and then redeem it………the mythic lesson we learn from the Christmas story that Mary is to be admired because she was a faithful and servile woman who acted at the calling of her husband and of an all-powerful male deity.
Just as we have our own mental images of perfect Christmases, possibly created due to the efforts of a mom or woman in our lives, I believe we have the same type of mental image of Mary, the virginal mother of Jesus. And these cultural stereotypes of women and of Mary have implications in how we act and how we choose to view women during the holidays and throughout the year. They are to be super-human in putting together perfect Christmases just as Mary is assumed to have been super-human in making sure that the first Christmas morning took place.
The prevailing Madonna image of women is a persistent one. For today, I want to explore with you how the Madonna perception might be transformed and re-examined, not just in a feminist light, but with a humanist perspective. How might the moral imagination of all people – male or female – be improved through a new understanding of Mary? Can we find a way to demolish the constraints of the so-called battle of the sexes – that women must fulfill one type of role and men another? Might we come to venerate Mary not for her obedience but for her strength; not for her weakness but her assertion of equality; and not for her perfect maternal attitudes but her insistence that, as the Bible tells us, there is no male or female in the eyes of the Divine?
Many feminist theologians claim that the real problem with the Virgin Mary is that she was not a real woman who can inspire women to reach new heights of achievement. She was and is a construct of a male dominated culture. Indeed, her seemingly unquestioned willingness to accept God’s choice of her as the womb mother of Jesus and her continued reputation as a virgin – in some religions, untouched by a man for the remainder of her life – all of this has set her as an unattainable ideal. She is a mythic goddess of virtue and of absolute faith. How many women can possibly live up to her standard?
The imposition on Mary of virgin status is one that many theologians do not accept as factual. Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke record the Christmas story. There is compelling evidence that the first part of the gospel of Luke is a much later forgery – one appended onto the original in order to mimic Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. And the Christmas story in the gospel of Matthew is itself largely believed to be based on a mistranslation of the Old Testament book of Isaiah which predicted that the messiah would be born to – the Hebrew word – “almah”. This word “almah” was translated as “virgin” by the original writer of Matthew when it should have been accurately translated as “young girl”. The mother of Jesus most likely became a virgin because of a mistranslation.
Paul never mentions the virgin birth in any of his letters found in the Bible and he even refers to Jesus as the son of Joseph, born according “to the flesh”. If Jesus had been born of a virgin, Paul would almost assuredly have mentioned it.
Many ancient gods were born from virgins. Roman emperors were said to be so born. In the swirl of multiple religions in ancient times, Christianity needed to compete – Jesus could not be a mere human prophet – and so it is strongly supposed – and there is much evidence to support it – that the myth of Christmas and a virgin birth of Jesus was a mistake later embraced by male church leaders.
Besides giving us the holiday of Christmas and the season we now celebrate, this myth has harmed countless women. The male leaders of the early church and successive male Popes and religious figures have all seized on the stories of Eve and of Mary to define and thereby subjugate women. Eve was the first sinner for it was she who was seduced by Satan and it was she who then tempted Adam. A woman, according to this theology, caused the fall of humanity.
Mary was the perfect answer to a sinful Eve but she is good only by obedience and submission to male authority. In that interpretation of the Christmas story, she retains no control over her own body. The implicit message of this version is that a woman’s body and sexuality are evil. Redemption comes only through virginity, and compliance with male authority. As many feminist theologians have described it, Mary was figuratively raped in the conception of Jesus. To be perfectly blunt, it is possible to see our warm and wonderful holiday of Christmas as based on the control and forced impregnation of a poor, young, middle-eastern girl.
And it is Mary’s status as a young, poor girl from a backwater town that has so captivated many similar girls and women around the world. In her book titled Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics, Marcella Althaus-Reid argues that the ideal of a Virgin Mary is horribly distant from the reality of life for poor women around the world. In the crowded and impoverished conditions of urban ghettoes or rural areas in third world nations, sexual violence and promiscuity are normal. Young girls are routinely raped, sold into sexual slavery or forcibly married off, in return for a meager dowry. These girls thus find themselves pregnant at very early ages. But in many nations, particularly in Latin America and parts of Africa, women revere Mary at a level almost greater than that of Jesus. She represents the perfection they cannot match. She is the goddess who remained pure, who kept her faith and who is the very mother of god.
The virginal myth of Mary reduces many women around the world to the second class status that a patriarchal culture desires – Mary is pure, you as a woman are not. You are sinful like Eve. The guilt and shame you feel are deserved. Your only redemption is to be like Mary and simply obey your father, husband, Priest, Pastor and God. Be docile. Be quiet. Be a good mother. Choreograph the perfect Christmas.
My concern with the myth of Christmas as it relates to women is not to say that the roles of wife or mother are necessarily bad. Indeed, Mary’s love for Jesus as a mother is well known – she was one of the last people to remain at the Cross, she was one of the first to testify of his resurrection and many have called her the first disciple. Those are the actions of a woman who has freely chosen what to do. We never hear of Joseph after Jesus’ childhood. But Mary was an active follower of Jesus and one who herself found common cause with the outcasts, the sick, and the poor. What I hope we can elevate is the ideal of a woman who seeks, finds and then chooses her own path in life – whether that be as mother, doctor, wife or corporate manager. We celebrate the basic human right of control over one’s own body and one’s own sexuality. Those are gifts from the Divine for each of us to enjoy with dignity and autonomy.
Where does our concern with the ancient Virgin Mary and Christmas myth leave us? Must we throw out this holiday and our enjoyment of it as some patriarchal construct that is both outdated and pernicious? I believe, along with many others, that the mythic Virgin Mary can be redeemed.
Quite a few feminist theologians argue that Mary’s virginity paradoxically constitutes an elevation of women. Mary, as she is revered by many women, can also be seen as flouting the patriarchal notions of womanhood. After all, she did not need a man to give birth to Jesus. She was independent of Joseph in that regard and thus assumed an importance greater than his. In many cultures and religions, it is the phallic seed planter that is admired. In this instance, it is the feminine womb that is idealized. Like the ancient Greek vestal virgins who held great authority in their society, Mary is independent of male influence, power and control. Indeed, some have noted that with her virgin birth, she was the first to proclaim an unorthodox, perhaps even a lesbian sexuality – men are not needed. Whether or not the mother of Jesus was a virgin, the message we might discover from her is that she asserted control over her own body. If she was impregnated by normal means, Mary defied the patriarchal construct that a woman must be pure before marriage. If she was a virgin and yet still a mother, we might see her as asserting similar control over her body and reproduction. In that case, she also defied the patriarchal construct that men are essential.
Our American 19th century writer Harriet Beecher Stowe admired Mary because of her elevation to near equality with God. Mary allows, according to Stowe, the admiration and veneration of the feminine aspects of God. Indeed, she offers many a theistic reason to refer to God as Mother instead of as Father. Divine attributes of nurture, compassion and sensitivity are admired because of Mary. Indeed, no less of a conservative Christian writer than C.S. Lewis once noted, “It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is also arrogance to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine’.”
What we find then, I believe, is the possibility of a transformed Mary. Ultimately, this transformation is for the betterment of all humanity. As I said earlier, a re-envisioned Mary liberates women to freely control their own bodies and lives in ways that are unorthodox and assertive. She also liberates men to adopt Divine qualities that are too often seen as feminine but which should be, instead, universal character traits – love of peace, sensitivity to the suffering of others, nurturing attitudes and a soft-spoken demeanor.
And I do not propose this new image of Mary as a way to salvage Christmas. If Christmas is, indeed, based on misogyny and chauvinism, it is not a helpful holiday. Nevertheless, even though Christmas is most likely, I believe, based on myth, it holds powerful messages of spiritual truth for us to learn and practice. As I said last Sunday, the purpose and message of Jesus the man was not to create a perfect world but to create change in the human heart. The teacher, rabbi and prophet Jesus called us to think more of others than of ourselves, to practice forgiveness, to learn peace and to offer compassion. Why would we not celebrate the birth of such an individual? In the same manner that we honor in January the birth of Martin Luther King and celebrate in February the birth of Abraham Lincoln, so too can we celebrate and enjoy the birth of Jesus – perhaps the greatest human to have ever lived.
And all of this holds true for Mary, the mother of god, the impoverished virgin, the teenage girl chosen in myth to become Queen of Heaven. Male power throughout history has chosen to use Mary as a means to control and subjugate women. She has been the anti-Eve to all of the so-called fallen and depraved women of the world. Be like her in obedience to men and to Father God.
And yet, as I stated earlier, Mary is also the one with real power in the Christmas story. We might see that however she became pregnant, she exercised control over her body. We witness her independence from men and the fact that she had no need of Joseph. She was autonomous in her unorthodox sexuality and, ultimately, in any male use of her body. Whatever she was, an adulterous woman or a virgin, she made the choice.
Mary, in this form of liberation theology, frees women from the shackles of male dominance over their reproduction and she also frees men from the wounds resulting from the oppression they have inflicted. Men need no longer be in control. They can also be weak. They must no longer always be the decision makers. They can submit. They can cry. They can, in a word, be like Jesus. Indeed, God the Father might symbolically dress in drag and become God the Mother.
Just as we might believe with regard to Jesus, so too can we believe with Mary: strict definitions of gender and of gender specific roles are not the stuff of our moral imagination. I believe humanity seeks cooperation and mutual reconciliation no matter the race, class, sexuality, religion, OR gender. The ultimate message of Christmas is one of peace and goodwill towards all humanity and towards all creation. If contemporary religious patriarchs choose to still exploit the Virgin Mary and the Christmas myth for their own agenda of male dominance and aggression, we must, I hope, respond with our own interpretation in behalf of wounded women and hurting men.
In that regard, let me sum up my point: the docile, gentle and obedient Virgin Mary who has been revered for her unattainable purity is a false image. That Mary is, I believe, a false prophet.
The Mary I choose to celebrate this Christmas, and the Jesus I accept as a great man, were prophets of self-actualization, compassion, love and independence. This Mary and this Jesus are forever immortalized in the manger scene within our minds – a woman of determination, autonomy and gentleness. She swaddles in a blanket the child who will go down in history as a person who calls us to serve the least of humanity – the sinner, outcast, ill and needy person within and around us all.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, heroes of earthly peace, love and freedom…
I wish you all a joyous and inspired Christmas.