On Christmas Eve this year, we’re going to do something different. We’re not going to do the pageant I had originally thought of, but we ARE going to do a pageant. It’s going to be a “pick-up” pageant. You show up, you pick a part, and you play it. Simple as that. If that means 6 Marys and no shepherds, that’s fine! I’m going to invite people to play the character in the story they’ve always wanted to play, the character they connect with the most, or the character who means the most to them. They can even create a character who isn’t actually mentioned in Luke’s Gospel: like a little drummer boy, a midwife, or an innkeeper. One year we had a dinosaur in our pageant. And why not? Can’t all that is living or has ever lived be a part of our celebration?
When I was in my early teens, I really REALLY wanted to play Mary. First off, you got to hold a baby – which I’ve always loved doing. Secondly, I had this really great shawl I wanted to wear – it was pastel pinks and blues and mauve, knit fine as a cobweb. Last, I was impressed by the tranquility Mary always showed in the movies and artwork I’d seen. “Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger”. That’s how I pictured her, and when my time to play Mary came, that’s how I played her: quiet, gentle, shyly brooding over her baby. The role fit the introverted teenager I was, to a T.
Years later I met another Mary – the Mary we meet in our readings from Luke. This Mary is a prophet, a visionary, and a rebel. She defies social norms to bear a child given her by God, with or without a husband. She journeys miles into the hill country to visit her older cousin and be with Elisabeth as she awaits the birth of a long-awaited child – despite being pregnant herself. And she and Elisabeth and their boys all have the gift of prophecy – of hearing God’s voice and reading the signs of the times through the eyes of God’s hopes and dreams for the world.
Linnea Good depicts this Mary in her song, “Handmaid”. The angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will bear God’s son, who will be a mighty king, victorious in battle, and the Saviour of his people. Mary says she will not bear a child who brings death and destruction in his wake. She responds, “The child I bear will save no race, yet move the throned ones apace, shall bring the mighty to the weak, and help the very stones to speak. This child will have its mother’s face, yet die in poverty’s disgrace upon the treason’s day.” The song continues, “The angel less than shallow shone across the sunlit morning. ‘I cannot see the future’s dawn, your answer we must rest upon.’ But Mary was already gone into the bustling day.” A bit shocking to some of us who can’t imagine gentle Mary answering back to an angel, and certainly not a part of Luke’s story, but the prophetic Mary of Luke 1 said something similar in her prophecy to her cousin. She imagined a great reversal when the great would become the low and the low would become great.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when we consider the prophetic gifts of Mary and Elizabeth, the prophecy of Zachariah, the visions of Joseph, and the sons they raised. Add in the divine Spirit driving John and inhabiting Jesus and that’s a formidable set of gifts these men were given by those who gave them birth.
It’s easy to turn the Christmas story into something soft and sentimental – and there’s nothing wrong at all with finding comfort and peace in contemplating a silent night and a peaceful stable tableau. But there’s this other side of Christmas – this rebellious, controversial, crazy, and yet joyful side that we need to give our attention to as well.
I woke up on Tuesday morning to the sound of my radio, tuned to the French station, since that’s the only one my radio picks up reliably. I was trying to make myself get out of bed when the music changed and there was the skirl of Irish pipes and the drumming of a bodhran, and I thought – what on earth is that? It turned out to be the McGarrigles doing an up-tempo version of Jackson Browne’s Rebel Jesus. I’d never heard it before! This is how the words go:
All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
They’ll be gathering around the hearths and tales
Giving thanks for all god’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus
Well they call him by the Prince of Peace
And they call him by the Savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.
This carol is a caution from a sympathetic and philosophical pagan who wants to remind us Christians not to lose track of whose birth we are celebrating: this child whose mother was a prophet, a rebel, a daring and God-touched woman. This child is a rebel’s son. Mary’s song declares that in Jesus, God will lift up the lowly and see the hungry fed. With Jesus’ entry into our world there comes more justice, more righteousness, more compassion, more sharing. It doesn’t come without turning over a few tables and risking all kinds of things, even, in Jesus and John’s case, their lives.
As Christmas nears, we rejoice and give thanks for all of the gifts of this season, all the hope and peace and love Christ brings, and we remember, once more, the rebel Jesus, his prophet mother Mary, and what it means to be following in their footsteps as those with Good News, terribly and wonderfully GOOD NEWS, to share. Amen.