Mary, the Mother of Jesus: I would like to say a bit more here about Mary and the story of Jesus birth before commenting on the story as Luke tells it (and tells it so well). Luke has already said that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph, betrothal being a legal promise that served as a precursor to marriage. “In Roman law, the minimum age of marriage for girls was 10, and Jewish practices were similar. Marriage generally took place before a girl reached 12 and a half. As a virgin, Mary would have been a young girl of marriageable age (i.e., about 12 or 13) who had not engaged in sexual intercourse.” (Interpreters Study Bible). That is the cultural context for Luke’s telling of the story. He is making a very dramatic point about how God will begin to make God’s presence felt and known in the world in a new way. It will happen through a young woman, one who should not be pregnant, giving birth. The young woman was not powerful, but ordinary, yet she is willing to be a part of God’s purposes for the world. That is what matters to Luke, and at the end of this reflection, I want to share part of a poem about Mary that I have found profoundly meaningful.
First, however, I want to say something about the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth. Some Christians have made believing in the literal truth of Luke’s story a definitive mark of Christian faith. Should it be so considered? “How strange that the virgin birth became an article of faith for some Christians! The conviction seems to be that believing the unbelievable is an act of faith that has some merit with God and assures believers of being faithful Christians.” (George Ricker, What You Don’t Have to Believe to Be a Christian, 45). Ricker goes on to note that none of the earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark, even mention the virgin birth. Bishop John Shelby Spong notes the same when writing about the virgin birth stories and thinks that they are “a fascinating first century way to suggest that Jesus was a spirit person. Surely this was not biology that was being described.” (Spong, Why Christianity Must Change of Die, 108) In another book, Spong writes about first century understandings of the birth process. “The early Christians simply did not understand the woman’s role in reproduction. They reasoned not from scientific knowledge but from an analogy drawn from their common life. They knew that a farmer planted his seed in the soil of the earth and that Mother Earth nurtured the seed into maturity. This was the analogy that shaped the way ancient Jews understood human reproduction. The life of any newborn baby was believed to dwell in the seed of the male. The woman’s contribution, like that of Mother Earth, was only to provide a nurturing womb.” (Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, 118) Back to George Ricker. Virgin births were part of the thought-forms of the Graeco-Roman world. It should come as no surprise, for those who know that ancient culture, that Christians relied upon the same ways of thinking to proclaim their faith in the uniqueness of Jesus…. The virgin birth may be a historical event, a literal happening, or it may be a wondrous tradition, the poetic expression of a profound faith. The basic issue, it seems to me, is not about believing the virgin birth literally, but whether Christian faith should rest upon something so uncertain and so removed from our experience. Yet, the virgin birth is essentially true in a depth dimension. As Frederick Buechner has written: “Whereas the villains of history can always be seen as the products of heredity and environment, the saints always seem to arrive under their own steam. Evil evolves. Holiness happens.”… Is it not possible for us to choose our interpretation and at the same time not exclude from the Christian family those who choose another?
Again, the primary point of Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is to say something about the importance of Jesus and about the amazing way God works to achieve God’s purposes in the world. If I think this story is more parabolic than historical (in the narrow sense), it still leads me to affirm that the God I know in Jesus Christ is a God who brings new life when the odds seem stacked against it. God works in unexpected ways, through quiet people, just as often, perhaps even more often, than in the grand designs of the powerful and well-heeled. And don’t forget, Mary said “yes” - - - Mary age 12 or 13 said “yes” to God.
Here is the part of a poem I promised. It is written by Rosario Castellanos and is entitled “Nazareth.” It is a reflection on Mary and is taken from The Gospel in Our Image, edited by David Curzon.
Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.
Luke 2:1-20: We read these words every Christmas Eve in Christian churches, and in them, Luke’s literary artistry is on full display. Luke sets the historical context, though some of his information does not fit what we know of who ruled when. That is not that important to Luke. His point is theological. Emperor Augustus was Octavian, grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, and the title “Augustus” implied both political power and religious respect. Rome collected taxes, and to many Jews, this was a deep offense – having to pay taxes to a pagan government for living in their own land. It was a prime reason for revolt among Jews, eventuating in the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73, and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The census referred to was of Judea, in preparation for its direct rule as a Roman province after the death of Herod. “Luke thus sets the story of Jesus is the context of political struggle, taxation, and the imperial and religious claims of Rome.” The issue for Luke is “the stand one takes in regard to whether it is the birth of Jesus or of Caesar that is good news, whether the title ‘Savior’ is legitimately applied to Caesar or to Jesus.” (The Peoples New Testament Commentary) The circumstances are extremely humble – a guest room in a home where animals also dwelt. There is no palace for this God-blessed child. The good news of his birth goes out not to the powerful, but to the ordinary, shepherds going about their work. The term used for “good news” originally meant a victory message from a field of battle and had become almost a technical term for the birth of the emperor. This will be good news for all people – Luke will emphasize again and again how the good news about Jesus, about God touching human life through the life of Jesus, will be for all people. “Savior” and “Lord” were titles used for the emperor, and sometimes of gods. “Christ” or “Messiah” is a term meaning “one anointed by God to do something for God.” The announcement of “peace on earth” is also an echo of Roman imperial theology. Rome proclaimed itself the maker of peace. The gospel says that God in Jesus will make peace, not Rome. Perhaps as Christians we need to ask again and again how it is God would make peace through us in our world.
Luke 2:21-38: These stories of the beginnings of Jesus are told only in Luke, and again reveal his creativity. Jesus’ parents do what is appropriate for Jewish parents. They name Jesus and have him circumcised, and they bring a purification offering for Mary to the Temple. By the way, the offering Mary brings indicates that she is among the poor. While at the Temple, a significant location, a man named Simeon, a person filled with the Holy Spirit, sings the praises of God for what God is up to in Jesus. God is up to “saving work.” Another person, Anna, also proclaims good news. Praise is a natural part of the language of faith. Luke makes that point, and reiterates how special Jesus is in God’s dream for the world.
Luke 2:39-52: This story seems to serve two functions for Luke, it emphasizes the humanity of Jesus – that he grew up in a home, traveled to religious festivals, etc., and also foreshadows his importance. Even as a boy, his faith was strong and he asked profound questions in the Temple. Greek and Roman stories about heroic figures often included such foreshadowing. That twice in these verses we are told that Jesus grew should be an encouragement to us to keep growing as people of God.
Luke 3:1-20: A familiar figure appears again in Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son John. Again, Luke is careful to locate John’s ministry in a historical context. John and Jesus are not just ethereal figures from the mists of a mythic past, but people who trod the trails of Galilee and climbed the hills of Judea. Luke may not always get all the history right, but he wants to make sure the people understand that the God of John and Jesus is not one removed from everyday life. This God acts in human lives within history. The emperor has changed, Tiberius, not Augustus/Octavian. Herod in Galilee is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Rome now directly controls Judea through the governor, or prefect, Pontius Pilate. These are the powerful, but the word of God comes to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. From his experience he proclaims and baptizes. Luke cites a passage from Isaiah to give a theological shape to John’s work, and to again emphasize that this is a part of God’s work of saving God’s people – something God is always doing in various ways. And how does one get in line with God’s saving work – repent. In Hebrew, repentance meant to turn or return. In Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, or go beyond the mind that you have. Repentance means “a fundamental reorientation of the way one thinks about the world and life, a revolution in one’s thinking that effects a change of direction in one’s life” (The Peoples New Testament Commentary). And what does a reoriented life look like? It is a life of sharing, a life of compassion and justice in whatever one does. John does not tell those whose work is for Rome (soldiers and tax collectors) to quit their jobs, but to do them with a new mind and heart. John’s powerful message attracts attention, but he tells them that another even more powerful person is on his way. John’s ministry also attracted some of the wrong kinds of attention and he found himself on the wrong side of Herod, who threw him into prison. The kind of reoriented life that John speaks of remains relevant for those of us who follow the one John spoke about.
Luke 3:21-22: In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus baptism, there is no indication of John’s hesitancy. The focus becomes Jesus own experience – baptism, prayer, the Spirit descending, the word that he is beloved by God and God’s son. When have you experienced in prayer or through a meaningful ritual the closeness of God, being beloved by God?
Luke 3:23-38: To reemphasize the Jesus is indeed the “son of God,” Luke includes a genealogy that takes Jesus all the way back to God. If one compares it to Matthew’s genealogy, one finds differences. That should be no surprise for the purpose of these genealogies is not biology but theology. “The net effect is to provide for Jesus a legitimation appropriate to Luke’s world.” (New Interpreters Study Bible)