The first war on Christmas

In Advent 2013 let’s not become so obsessed about who says “Merry Christmas” over the counter that we ignore the magnificent ignominy of Jesus’ birth.

By Bill Leonard

The Blessed Virgin Mary scares me. It happens every Advent. She questions my ways and means, confronts me with mystery, gives me guilt and makes me think twice before driving to the mall.

Listening to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I think it’s not that our Christmas shopping is necessarily wrong. It’s that we shouldn’t do it in Jesus’ name at Christmas or any other time.

In fact, we might say that the Blessed Virgin Mary launched her own “war on Christmas” from the start, prophetically warning us to consider the birth of her son in its liturgical and economic implications. In Advent 2013 let’s not become so obsessed about who says “Merry Christmas” over the counter that we ignore the magnificent ignominy of Jesus’ birth.

This Advent we need to hear Mary sing the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) — half praise-chorus, half socio-economic manifesto — one more time. The Latin Vulgate starts it out like this, Magnificat anima mea Dominus, while the New English Bible exults hauntingly: “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord, rejoice, rejoice, my spirit in God my savior.”

Mary first shouts praise for the grace that has fallen upon her, but by the second verse her words get downright volatile. In the NRSV Mary chants: God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s Song compels us to admit incarnation, that high-sounding word that describes the identity of a people who believe God entered the world like we all do, from a woman’s belly — an audacious claim indeed. Each Advent Mary calls us to confess that God became vulnerable, “took the form of a servant” for creation’s sake, especially for the sake of the poor.

In her book, A Virgin Conceived, my Wake Forest colleague Mary Foskett wrote that whether the Magnificat comes from Mary’s mouth or Luke’s pen (scholars disagree), “it functions to cast Mary as a representative of the oppressed. She proclaims hope and redemption to those who, poor in either standing or means, look to the God of Israel for their salvation.”

Foskett cites Raymond Brown’s contention that the term “Poor Ones ... came to refer more widely to those who could not trust in their own strength but had to rely in utter confidence upon God: the lowly, the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the widows and orphans.”

Jesus’ birth has saving and sociological overtones. In Raids on the Unspeakable, Thomas Merton wrote in his ever wonderful prose: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.... It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room."

I thought of Mary’s Song and Jesus’ homeless birth recently when reading that Pope Francis may be prowling the Roman streets spending time with the homeless. Huffington Post reported that, "Swiss guards confirmed that the pope has ventured out at night, dressed as a regular priest, to meet with homeless men and women."

Maybe the ever-astonishing pontiff is driven to do so by Mary’s Song in Luke 1 or Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4. Perhaps he simply figures that engagement with “the least of these” is exactly what someone who is called Vicar of Christ should do (see Matthew 25).

Maybe Mary’s prophetic hymn and Francis’ gospel actions represent what my friend the Jewish philosopher/ecologist Roger Gottlieb calls “the spirituality of resistance.” In a book by that title, Gottlieb wrote that, “A spirituality of resistance, while recognizing the importance of working on ourselves, also directs us toward outer examination, outer transformation, and the pursuit of justice in the world.”

He concluded: “To find a peaceful heart ... we need to live on this earth: fully conscious of what is happening on it, actively resisting that which we know to be evil or destructively ignorant.”

In a country where one of five children goes hungry every day, we’ve got our work cut out for us “filling the hungry with good things.”

If Mother Mary is right, we won’t have peaceful hearts until we do. Scary, thank God.

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