Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Empowering Mary: A Paradigm Shift on the Nativity Story

I've always felt at least a little uncomfortable with the common modern renditions of the conditions of Christ's birth:  Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, poor and alone.  They reach the one inn in town, Mary obviously ready to pop, if not already in labor, only to find it crowded and run by a grumpy and inhospitable innkeeper who gruffly forces them to leave.  In despair and urgency, they take refuge in a stable among the animals and filth. Alone and in the most squalid of circumstances imaginable, the Christ child is born and laid in the manger where the cows and goats continue to nibble the hay out from under his head.

The entire basis for this account is these 4 verses from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2--

 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is calledaBethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
 To be taxed with Mary his aespoused wife, being great with child.
 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
 And she brought forth her afirstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the binn.

When you read what is there, there really is so little that is concretely declared about the circumstances.  I have no problem with people inventing details to flesh out a story that is so important to so many.  The problem I have is with those invented details being perpetuated and taught as truth down the generations.

It started with the innkeeper.  Even as a child, I was uncomfortable with the birth story having an invented villain.  No where in the Bible does it mention an innkeeper, and yet he consistently makes an appearance, turning the holy couple away out of selfishness and greed.  My first childish thoughts were, "That is so unfair. No one knows that he was mean or selfish.  Maybe he was nice.  He even let them stay in his stable.  What, should he have kicked out someone who was already there?  He did the best he could."  It wasn't until later that I realized--there may never even have been an innkeeper at all.  And I think that's the point.  I can invent details that please myself, but I do not claim that is actually how things were, any more than the "traditional" details.

Some other thoughts are on the accomodations available to Mary and Joseph.  The Joseph Smith Translation of the bible renders the word as "inns" rather than "inn," and some research into the original Greek (on the internet--don't judge) points out that the word translated as "inn" in this circumstance is not the same as that meaning a public house for travelers, but rather a guestroom in a private residence.  This makes sense.  Bethlehem is Joseph's hometown.  It seems only natural that he would have family to stay with.  But, being a time when everyone came home, the houses were probably crowded.

Since having my own babies, I have connected more with Mary in this story.  The more I thought about her, the more I felt offended on her behalf even more than on the innkeeper's.  Why should she be depicted as the simpering, wimpering, powerless victim?  I personally think God would have picked a Mother for the Christ with a little more gumption than that.  Having traveled to a different state in order to have a natural home birth, in the basement of a friend's house where the rest of the family who owned the house went about their business upstairs, I know what it is like to have a baby far from home, in a busy house that doesn't belong to you.  And let me tell you, there could be plenty of "room" to live and eat and sleep at night and still "no room" to have a baby.  And at this point my imagination started to run.  I can only imagine Mary, coming on to her time, looking around that crowded house and thinking, "No. Way."  OK.  Say she is demure and kindhearted.  She won't kick anyone else out of the house just for her, but still.  She goes to Joseph.

Mary: There's no room here.  I can't have my baby here.
Joseph: There's no where else to go.  The city is full.
Mary: I don't know.  Not here.
Joseph:  Mary, there is no where else.
Mary:  There has to be.  Somewhere.  I can't be here with all these people.
Joseph: Where, Mary?  Where?  The entire city is full.
Mary:  I will find a place!
Joseph:  Where are you going to go?  The barn?
Mary: Yes!

Her nesting instincts kick in and she starts cleaning.

OK, that's the funny way it goes in my mind.  Truthfully, there were probably many female relatives and a midwife or two there to anticipate her need for solitude, and clean for her.  Nowhere says that Jesus was born on the first night they arrived.  They had time to prepare for this journey.  They would have planned time to prepare the circumstances for his birth.

Again, I emphasize that I am not claiming this is what happened.  I am only saying that this narrative fits with the facts as laid out in the scriptures as well as any other does, and it feels a lot more respectful of the Holy Mother as a women and a powerful daughter of God.

And who ever thought I would be writing a feminist Christmas blog?

Make a Merry Christmas!


Maria Krieser said...

Really beautiful thoughts. I do hope she wasn't alone for the birth. I have felt close to Mary since the year 23 years ago when I entered the Christmas season with my first born son. Maybe it was hormones, (and still is) but i can't think of her and the strength it took to do what she did without getting all teary.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you. This stupid decree that everyone go back to their 'homeland' to be taxed meant that the whole town was overcrowded. And if there wasn't room in a private home for them, the public places were generally common areas, large shared rooms. I'm sure she and Joseph sought out a private place, and I'm sure there was a midwife and a female relative or two to help.

AGarner said...

Carol, you are brilliant. I love your perspective and want to share it with your aunties and hope you won't mind. Love to you and yours!

Carol said...

I would be flattered for you to share it. :)

Carol said...

I would be flattered for you to share it. :)