It’s a bit odd not ‘doing’ Christmas for the first time in years. Being on sabbatical (study leave), I will not be in prison on Christmas Day and am not preaching or presiding at any Christmas services. So, I will be having the unusual experience (for a bishop) of enjoying Christmas in a ‘non-professional’ sort of way – if you know what I mean.
This freedom is also making my mind run a bit more freely. Among the many books I am reading is Simon Schama‘s The American Future: A History. I missed the televised series and then started the book about a year ago, not getting very far into it because of other distractions and pressures on time. But, this week I returned to it and I am glad I did.
Schama is superb at describing the role of religious (Christian) faith in the shaping of America. Not only in relation to the protections of the Constitution and the reaction against the association of European Christianity with political power enshrined in the First Amendment, it was profound Christian determination and courage that fired up those who struggled and fought for the emancipation of the slaves and the integration of the black people as citizens of America. Schama is no Christian, but he brings a dispassionate (and, to me, surprising) eye to the power of Christian faith in bringing about change rather than just thinking and talking about it. He doubts that the Enlightenment ‘rationalist’ tradition would have done any more than discuss slavery – whereas the courage, vision and deep-rooted theology of humanity’s ‘createdness in the image of God’ owned by slaves and some whites gave birth to a song that could not be silenced. He describes at length (in Part Two) the singing, the music, the irrepressible creative passion that refused to be silenced by torture, oppression, ridicule or rejection.
This has made me reflect back on the Christmas story that is being told and re-told in so many ways this week. But, as any good carol service will demonstrate, wherever we pitch into the story, it is never the ‘beginning’. Even John 1 and the Genesis narrative takes us back beyond the ‘Beginning’ into the nature of the eternal God himself. But I go back to a summary point that is pivotal in our understanding of what Christmas is about: the song Mary sings when told she is to give birth, the Magnificat.
I don’t know what sort of song a young single woman should sing when told she is to bear a child (not from her fiance) who will turn the world upside down. Mirroring the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament, – she knew her ‘story’ and her tradition – she sings not of the joy of starting a family or the privilege of bearing a child full of potential and promise. No, she sings of the cost of vocation, the nature of the world (dominated by power, strength, hierarchies and privileges) and the challenge that God brings (in the child who will bring down the mighty and establish the meek).
Mary captures (or is captured by) the fact that God’s people are to be characterised – and even recognised – by their reflection of the character of God himself: one who gives power away, who lays aside rights and glory, who opens himself to vulnerability, who opts into the world’s suffering and joy and does not exempt himself from the struggle. This is a God who by his very nature offends the caprices and ambitions of a greedy world. The warning in this deeply politically subversive song is that Mary’s child will grow into a man who will say once and for all: “it doesn’t have to be this way; dare to see the world differently; dare to have your values turned upside down and see how the world can be changed by those who, ‘in Christ’, live a different way.”
Mary’s baby will embody all this. He will fulfil the calling that was always Israel’s vocation: to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God is. And his people will now dare to live out what was to be fulfilled in this Jesus – but what has always been the calling of God to the people who claim to bear his name.
If the songs of the black slaves and former slaves in America could not be surpressed and if the voices of those inflamed with the inescapable passion of a liberating God could not be silenced by violence or ridicule or apathy or condescension, then Mary’s song cannot be muted either.
I’m off to a Carol Service now. My heart and mind are gripped by Mary’s song and its subversive challenge to a world that is happy to keep Jesus as a cuddly baby in a manger but worried about letting him grow up into the man whose very being became so offensive to ‘contemporary values’ that we had to get rid of him. After all, he was spoiling the party, wasn’t he?