I can quite honestly say I am having a “cognitive dissonance Advent”. Late in November I received a monograph from two graduate students for review and comments. One of the most intriguing aspects of the monograph is that its authors are young females — one Israeli and one Palestinian. Their subject is an examination of the poor in first century B.C.E. Palestine (drawing mainly from sources written 60 – 2 B.C.E.), primarily in urban settings, but with rich detail comparison to rural life. It is slow going because I have been asked to do some source checking, and I find the work both well-researched and exhaustively documented. The problem with it is that it is challenging all of my 20th-21st century dearly held beliefs about the birth of Jesus! Our wonderfully crafted modern mythologizing transforms the accounts from Matthew and Luke into a pageant — grand, noble, inspiring, but also sterilized, palatable, and comfy.
Picture Mary. What images come to mind? The “wise” men? The shepherds? The stable and manger? The immaculately clean, well-behaved, reverent animals in western style stalls? The star in the sky? Joseph? The mean old inn-keeper? In its simplicity it is a sweet, gentle, kind, lovely story. Just the kind we love — don’t nobody mess it up! If you don’t want it messed with, stop reading. No, seriously, you won’t care for the rest of this blog. I mean it. Step away from the blog.
Modern American society may be cognitively incapable of comprehending rural life in ancient times, foreign places, with primitive understandings of the way the world works, grounded in deep and wide superstition. Life was hand-to-mouth existence in large extended families that mainly never ventured more than a few miles from home. Tiny stone dwellings with dirt floors crammed together with no spaces in between housed hundreds of people with virtually no more than a couple of square feet to a person. Clean water was rare, so personal hygiene was scarce and water-born disease rampant. Bathing was not viewed as necessary; in fact, it wasn’t believed to be good for you. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no modern conveniences are givens, but lamp oil was at a premium and not used widely by the rural poor — who accounted for upwards of 80% of the population. Life happened between sunrise and sunset, and it was filled with non-stop hours of hard labor and toil, for most children as well as adults. Injury, loss of limbs, digits, eyes, disfigurations were a simple part of normal life. Early medicine was crude, and while we would like to visualize a wise homeopathy, the reality is that as many patients were killed as cured by well-intentioned hokum and hoodoo passing as science. Women outnumbered men about two-to-one due to work related death, disease, conscription into service and ordinary violence. Often girls were promised to multiple men to adjust for the odds of survival. Most men didn’t really know the girls who were promised to them — males and females rarely interacted in any social form. Travel was unsafe, except in large groups. Bandits, brigands, rebels, zealots, thieves and the mentally unstable (and demon possessed) roamed freely and left few witnesses to their work. Mortality rates were high, and the average life span was less than four decades. We often think of Jesus dying young at 33, but this placed him well within the mid-section of the bell curve of his day. A fifty-year old was a rarity and a sixty-year old was an ancient miracle. Most of the rural poor were simple, in every sense of the word. They were uneducated and superstitious. They owned few possessions. They subsisted on what they could produce with their own hands. Skulls from the period show that few retained many of their teeth into adulthood. Vermin — insect and mammal — coexisted in every home and on every person. Young women were promised to older men as quickly as possible because of simple supply and demand factors. It was not unusual for families to broker marriages when girls were eight or nine with the promise of marriage at their very first menses. Childbirth began as soon after as possible, and with infant mortality as high as 60% in some regions, women gave birth at least annually in hopes of producing a sizeable enough family that could work for survival.
What might all of this suggest about Mary, a poor girl from Nazareth? I imagine most of us do not picture a timid, dirty teenager with ratty hair, rotting teeth, a ruddy complexion, thick muscled arms, calloused hands, unable to clearly articulate all the things happening to her. After all, Luke reports the lovely Magnificat. A poor, ignorant child couldn’t speak such beauty! Chances are Mary had known Joseph since her early childhood, but that they had very little interaction until she hit puberty. We miss the fact that the greatest miracle in the story may have been that Mary was not put to death when it was discovered she was pregnant. The killing of a young woman for infidelity and/or adultery was a common, emotionless, practical necessity. Paternal lineage was everything in some rural cultures, and women were merely vessels of transmission, in other words, property. Spoiled property was disposed of. Such an act caused no emotional upheaval; it was just a part of normal life. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth would not have been anything short of a necessity — if Joseph didn’t address Mary’s situation, any of the elders of the community could force the issue. Mary’s life, if she were a member of her culture, would be pregnancy after pregnancy while toiling in home and field from sun-up to sun-down. If Mark’s report that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters, it is not unreasonable to assume that Mary gave birth at least twelve to fifteen times in order to have seven surviving offspring. None of the subsequent births would rival the first however, but not because the first was Jesus, but because mother and child beat all odds of survival in the septic and toxic environment of a public stable. An “inn” in early Palestine was a fairly large room with shelves hewn into rock walls. Travellers supplied their own bedding or paid exorbitant prices for straw, generally not clean. Pots and barrels were provided for excrement and urine, but inn keepers rarely emptied them — “guests” took care of them when they became intolerable. Rats, mice, bats, fleas, and lice were constant companions to travellers. Most inns provided no food. When beds were filled, surrounding fields were offered, usually at a reduced rate. As a last resort, or in the case of foul weather, the “stable” was available. Many animals stayed outside, but valued animals like oxen and donkeys were crammed into a small, windowless room attached to the inn. The lack of windows was a discouragement to thieves and poachers, and the access to the inn was so that the heat from the animals would warm the guests. The smells must have been epic. Mangers — feed boxes of extremely crude and coarse design — were scattered throughout and were used only when the “guests” at the inn paid for feed. The poorest of the poor squeezed in amongst the animals, seeking patches not covered in filth and where they might not be trampled. Dozens of people would huddle in these abysmally dark, hot, dirty rooms until sunrise. And who would end up as “the poorest of the poor?” Simple tradespeople (like carpenters) would qualify, as would shepherds, as would sorcerers (or magi, if you will). Prostitutes and tax-collecters would be welcome in the inn — they could pay. It would not be unusual on any given night to find poor rural travellers elbow to elbow with shepherds and those who dabbled in magic — outcasts all.
I shared all of this with a friend of mine from a Catholic background and watched him turn purple with indignation and rage. He told me what a load of crap this was and it crossed the line into blasphemy. He recommended I look at some “catholic scholarship” on Mary for a more accurate and acceptable description of the Nativity. For him, this was a critical issue of belief and the sanctity of all he holds dear. I slogged into the resources he recommended and came away with a very different view. Mary, the product of immaculate conception herself, came from a wealthy and genteel family. Clean, educated, pious, and good, Mary from birth lived an other-worldly existence that prepared her to be the perfect vessel for divinity. Fair-skinned, bright-eyed, with luxuriant hair, Mary shone with the light of heaven. Joseph was selected to serve and protect Mary, and all of her births were miraculous, allowing her to remain a virgin. She never died, but ascended, carrying with her the knowledge of God, the wisdom of the ages, and the treasures of her heart. In my readings, all the Catholic scholars reference earlier Catholic scholars, and very few use the scriptures at all in their descriptions. Most sources are extra-canonical and the documentation is of Catholic doctrine, conceived from mystic experience and divine revelation. There is an amazing reverence and respect in the Catholic Maryology, but little true scholarship.
If you are still reading, I want to close with a story from my own life that makes me more open to the less appealing, dirtier, grittier vision of Mary. In 2001 I was working on a research project for the General Board of Discipleship on spiritual seeking in American culture, especially those who stayed outside conventional religion and the institutional church. One of my journeys took me to the south Bronx to meet with two young women who were leading a bizarre “church” in a tenement basement. Because of flight delays, I ended up being dropped off on a corner in the south Bronx at 2:00 in the morning. I was met by a tall, spindly young man in military fatigues who lifted up a section of chain link fence and beckoned me to follow him into a long, dark alley. Saying a quick prayer and thinking I might be seeing Jesus very soon, I followed through multiple twists and turns until we came to a brick building with boarded up windows and a big accordion gate across the doorway. My guide took me to the side of the building where he pried open a particle board cover over a door to let us in. I was shown a cot, and spent a night wondering what in God’s name I had gotten myself into. I remember hearing “scritching” noises in walls, floor and ceiling, thinking I might never see home again.
In the morning I met two second-generation Cuban/Puerto Rican women, named Jasmine and Amber. Jasmine was 19, with two children ages 2 and 3. Her husband was serving a twenty-year prison sentence in upstate New York. Amber, 17, had five children, all by different fathers (she knew where none of them were), and the kids were borderline feral, constantly screaming and fighting and crying. The seven of them shared a 600 square foot, single room flat. Both worked multiple jobs, and woman on the floor above watched their kids in trade for food. This is their story.
Jasmine battled a severe depression and decided that her two children would be better off without her. She contemplated suicide, but as she related it, she was too chicken to carry it out. Her mother-in-law suggested she seek some help and counseling at a church. Jasmine decided she would get her act together and that the church could help her. The first church they tried had a large “Open Hearts, Open MInds, Open Doors” banner over the entryway, so she thought she would try that first. JAsmine and Amber got their kids all packed up and headed to church. What they experienced was a less-than friendly welcome, and it was painfully clear that there was zero-tolerance for their unruly children. They couldn’t wait to leave, but they didn’t give up. They tried a few more churches of different denominations, but felt unwelcome in them all. They heard comments about their dress, their hair, their hygiene, their obvious lack of knowledge of how to conduct themselves, and most of all their “bratty” children. The two sisters were distraught but not defeated. They plotted together to go back to the first church with one simple mission: to steal a Bible and a hymnal so they could have them at home. They confessed that they had trouble reading the Bible and understanding it, and they could only sing a few of the hymns, but quickly they both found songs and scriptures they liked and Jasmine’s mother-in-law taught them how to pray. They started spending time in the laundry room in the basement of the tenement because the light was better, there was more room for the kids, and there was a table large enough for both of them to sit and read. Before long, other people joined them — a meth addict from the neighborhood (whom I have referred to in other posts as the first person I ever heard use mother-f***** in a prayer), two more tenants from the building, two gang members, a few teenagers and a couple shopkeepers from the neighborhood — and they began meeting three times a week to read the Bible, to sing songs, and to pray. When I met with them, they all reported that they did not feel welcome in mainline churches. As one voice, they all said that their small, informal community has become their church. They asked me if it would be all right to ask me some questions about things they didn’t understand, and when I said it was okay they began rattling off questions rapid fire. It was evident that they were starved for someone to teach them and help them in their faith. Never in any church I have served have I met more eager, hungry, attentive and sincere Christians. One of the questions they asked was why was the Christian religion all about the middle class — why was everything set up for white, middle class, educated “haves” that made church uncomfortable for the “have-nots.” I explained that it wasn’t meant to be that way, but that was the way we made it. I talked about the gospel of Luke and how often the poor, the marginalized, the fringe of society were the focus of the good news. We talked about Mary and the nativity story. Amber looked at me with a cynical look on her face, and somewhat belligerently asked, “So, are you saying somebody like me coulda been Mary.” Without thinking, my response was, “Exactly, you could have been Mary.” Tears came into her eyes, and I was thunderstruck. In my mind I thought, “Oh, my God — Mary was much more like these people than like me!” I received a violent epiphany. Past the initial jolt, a flood of related thoughts followed. The nativity story is even more miraculous than I have ever allowed it to be before! Mary wasn’t just poor, but dirt-poor — a victim of a society that had nothing for her. She was the lowest of low, the fringe, the margin. God didn’t burst into humanity from a place of privilege or even the hope of privilege. Jesus grew up with nothing. All of my twenty-first century backward projections that made the holy family clean, upright, smart, pretty, comfortable are nothing more than me remaking Jesus and his folks into the kind of people I like and can relate to! Would I ever believe or accept a child of an Amber or a Jasmine as the one, true son of God? Tragically, no. I would be one of the “haves” for whom a dirty little boy born into a barn/tenement is beneath me and of no account. I wouldn’t look twice at the poor, ignorant, dirty woman who gave him birth. This is the miracle. This is what makes the nativity powerful. All our sanitizing and sacralizing have reduced the miracle of Jesus’ birth into a happy pabulum that comforts and cradles our materialistic values. The hard truth that he came first to those without hope, living in abject poverty and desperation, despised and discarded by the dominant culture is dismissed. I am thankful to two grad students and two true Christian disciples from a world I have never truly known for giving me the gift of new sight. I come to the stable a different and humbled man this year. Thanks be to God.