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Primary Christmas story: Mary vs. the empire December 26, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in James Carroll.
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 By James Carroll | December 25, 2006

“AS FOR MARY, she treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). What things? The shame of her mysterious pregnancy, the terrible requirement to travel far away, the inhospitable place in which to give birth to her baby, the manger as his only cradle, shepherds crowding round, angels singing in the night. “Listen,” they said, “we bring you news of great joy.”

For those who follow him, today takes its name from Christ, but the events of Christmas belonged first to Mary, exactly as every birth belongs to the mother before it belongs to the child. In the Gospels, Mary is the still point at the center of turmoil. As the narrative unfolds around her — the angelic proclamation of peace, the star in the east, the arrival of three kings, the hint of her baby’s transcendent significance, the jealousy of Herod, the warning in a dream, the flight into Egypt, the murders of innocent children left behind — Mary is the one who knows.

The story of the birth of Jesus serves the Gospels as a prelude, establishing with staggering simplicity the main idea of this entire proclamation. And that idea was enough to strike fear in the heart. “She was deeply disturbed,” Luke says. But then the angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:2930) Those words, in fact, were addressed to the people who first heard this story, because the nativity narrative itself was dangerous.

It is hard to imagine now, when Christmas is the ultimate feast of domesticity, but the sweet tale of the coming of this child was, in its origin, an act of political treason. The Christmas story began, in the scholar John Dominic Crossan’s word, as a “counterstory.” People who first gathered to tell it to one another, as a way of saying what the memory of Jesus had come to mean to them, were signing up for revolution.

The baby Jesus, after all, is explicitly identified as an antagonist to no one less than the emperor of Rome. “Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . . ” (Luke 2:1) Augustus, claiming to be a god, was said to have been born of a human mother and a divine father. When a peasant woman from the opposite end of the social order is “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18), a direct rebuttal is being issued to the self-idolatrous emperor.

When the magi arrive to offer their gifts and bow, they are identifying the baby as a king, when the only king is Caesar. When angels sing of peace, they are defining the character of the kingdom that this child will initiate. Roman violence is challenged and rejected. When Herod, the emperor’s agent, fails in his attempt to murder the newborn, the theme is nevertheless being struck: Roman violence will pursue this child until it gets him. Mary is not afraid, but she is no fool. “A sword will pierce your soul,” a prophet tells her.

Pondering these things in her heart, Mary understands. Even within the nativity story, it falls to her to say what the events of Christmas actually mean. “My soul proclaims the greatness of God,” she begins. God “has routed the proud of heart. God has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, the rich sent empty away” (Luke 1:46-53).

The birth of Jesus is the reversal of the imperial order. The story of that birth is told and told again because the imperial order is always attempting a comeback, always needing to be challenged.

Empire lives in the United States of America, and, despite assumptions of many Christian Americans, Christmas still rebukes the empire. The implications of Mary’s statement for contemporary politics are obvious. Violence marks power as much as ever. Hunger and poverty among masses of people are inevitable byproducts of a market system that rewards the few.

When economic inequity becomes so extreme as to turn the global social order into an effective state of permanent war, which side is God on? The shepherds tell us, and so do the kneeling kings. Above all, Mary tells us.

Those who love her story have no choice but to measure themselves against its meaning. So perhaps we do this every year not only out of sentimental longing for “news of great joy,” but also out the wish to be a better people than we are.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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