Mary's Christmas

One of the unfortunate features of our cynical intellectual culture is the phobia surrounding Christmas. Texas legislators recently went as far as passing a law to guarantee everyone in public schools the right to say "Merry Christmas." That did not prevent a PTA volunteer in the home district of the legislator (Frisco) from issuing an edict against Christmas tidings. All of the discomfort surrounding Christmas and education is unfortunate because of the powerful and compelling moral and ethical content of the Christmas story. Here are three rather important implications to the Christmas story that skeptical intellectuals ought to give greater consideration:

1. The Christmas story remains one of the most decisive literary strikes against patriarchal injustice that the world has ever known.

The rudimentary description provided by Luke in chapters one and two reveals, at the most basic levels, a teenage girl pregnant with God's son outside of wedlock. Even the narrator of the story concedes that Mary's prospective husband considered "putting her away" because of the self-evidently shameful circumstances. The spectacular ethical crises showcased in the opening of the Gospel account raises deep intellectual questions about the story's purpose. Offering Mary as unashamed and even singing of God's favoritism toward her, reverses almost all known intellectual and moral traditions of how pregnant teens outside of marriage should feel. The violence that dominates women' lives globally today is bound up in male-made rules about how pregnancy can present itself to male expectations. The Christmas story shocks that male-made order.

2. The Christmas story is a stark reminder of the cruel injustices wrapped up in human sovereignty.

Our glib celebrations of the event with lights, trees, and presents misses the darker and broader contexts of the Christmas story. Christmas more fully understood is an illumination of the violent and capricious characteristics of human governance. The problem of evil shadows the Christmas story throughout. A bloody slaughter of male infants ordered by the Galilean sovereign is so thorough and ruthless that gospel narrators suggest that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took an exodus to Egypt -- an irony not likely lost on Jewish audiences familiar with the Old Testament reversal from the cruelty of Egyptian sovereignty. The angels did not intervene to stop the slaughter. Jesus did not magically evade the political machinations. His family was reduced to refugee status. The cruelty recorded in the Matthew account is not often referenced but is a stark reminder of a world precisely like the cruelty seen presently in Christianity's cradle -- Syria -- where so many ethnic groups face ethnic extermination while the world simply watches. Some of the few remaining speakers of Aramaic -- the language Jesus spoke -- are presently facing violent exterminations not unlike those described in the Matthew account.

3. The Christmas story challenges the social ordering of elites over lesser masses.

The Christmas story as already seen is such a complex array of literary ironies that we remain unable to fully unlock the full measure of justice, love, and compassion bound up in it. One of these principal ironies is the relationship of strong and weak, rich and poor, elite and marginalized. The angelic choir proclaiming a new king to shepherds in fields betrays all conventions of majesty and human glory. The marginal conditions of Jesus' birth assault the regal claims of the gospel authors. The story seems to continually address itself to the wrong audience. Jesus' humble setting of birth consequent to direct marginalization lays the foundations of grace in a way that remains intuitive to a world of poverty tempered by sovereign locales of wealth and elitism.

Jaded intellectuals tend to approach theological texts as if it falls to believers to prove their case found in this literature. As usual, this misses the rather obvious and essential point in such stories. By what faith can we master the limitations of being human? It is doubtful we will ever know for certain how to resolve the constant hauntings of injustice, cruelty, poverty, and brutality, but we will always need to muster the faith to try. If we do not daily take up the cross of faith, we are sure to lose not just our own souls but those of our brothers and sisters in the most common prelude to these problems: apathy. Good stories of faith raise the right questions about human evil and the Christmas story is certainly not intellectually exempt from this status.

When we wish one another Merry Christmas, we are not pretending that all is well or that evil and unfairness have fled the current scene of life. We are offering our fellow human beings an encouragement that we find the common faith to continue believing that these things can be overcome. Merry Christmas, World!

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication at Southern Methodist University.

One of the unfortunate features of our cynical intellectual culture is the phobia surrounding Christmas. Texas legislators recently went as far as passing a law to guarantee everyone in public schools the right to say "Merry Christmas." That did not prevent a PTA volunteer in the home district of the legislator (Frisco) from issuing an edict against Christmas tidings. All of the discomfort surrounding Christmas and education is unfortunate because of the powerful and compelling moral and ethical content of the Christmas story. Here are three rather important implications to the Christmas story that skeptical intellectuals ought to give greater consideration:

1. The Christmas story remains one of the most decisive literary strikes against patriarchal injustice that the world has ever known.

The rudimentary description provided by Luke in chapters one and two reveals, at the most basic levels, a teenage girl pregnant with God's son outside of wedlock. Even the narrator of the story concedes that Mary's prospective husband considered "putting her away" because of the self-evidently shameful circumstances. The spectacular ethical crises showcased in the opening of the Gospel account raises deep intellectual questions about the story's purpose. Offering Mary as unashamed and even singing of God's favoritism toward her, reverses almost all known intellectual and moral traditions of how pregnant teens outside of marriage should feel. The violence that dominates women' lives globally today is bound up in male-made rules about how pregnancy can present itself to male expectations. The Christmas story shocks that male-made order.

2. The Christmas story is a stark reminder of the cruel injustices wrapped up in human sovereignty.

Our glib celebrations of the event with lights, trees, and presents misses the darker and broader contexts of the Christmas story. Christmas more fully understood is an illumination of the violent and capricious characteristics of human governance. The problem of evil shadows the Christmas story throughout. A bloody slaughter of male infants ordered by the Galilean sovereign is so thorough and ruthless that gospel narrators suggest that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took an exodus to Egypt -- an irony not likely lost on Jewish audiences familiar with the Old Testament reversal from the cruelty of Egyptian sovereignty. The angels did not intervene to stop the slaughter. Jesus did not magically evade the political machinations. His family was reduced to refugee status. The cruelty recorded in the Matthew account is not often referenced but is a stark reminder of a world precisely like the cruelty seen presently in Christianity's cradle -- Syria -- where so many ethnic groups face ethnic extermination while the world simply watches. Some of the few remaining speakers of Aramaic -- the language Jesus spoke -- are presently facing violent exterminations not unlike those described in the Matthew account.

3. The Christmas story challenges the social ordering of elites over lesser masses.

The Christmas story as already seen is such a complex array of literary ironies that we remain unable to fully unlock the full measure of justice, love, and compassion bound up in it. One of these principal ironies is the relationship of strong and weak, rich and poor, elite and marginalized. The angelic choir proclaiming a new king to shepherds in fields betrays all conventions of majesty and human glory. The marginal conditions of Jesus' birth assault the regal claims of the gospel authors. The story seems to continually address itself to the wrong audience. Jesus' humble setting of birth consequent to direct marginalization lays the foundations of grace in a way that remains intuitive to a world of poverty tempered by sovereign locales of wealth and elitism.

Jaded intellectuals tend to approach theological texts as if it falls to believers to prove their case found in this literature. As usual, this misses the rather obvious and essential point in such stories. By what faith can we master the limitations of being human? It is doubtful we will ever know for certain how to resolve the constant hauntings of injustice, cruelty, poverty, and brutality, but we will always need to muster the faith to try. If we do not daily take up the cross of faith, we are sure to lose not just our own souls but those of our brothers and sisters in the most common prelude to these problems: apathy. Good stories of faith raise the right questions about human evil and the Christmas story is certainly not intellectually exempt from this status.

When we wish one another Merry Christmas, we are not pretending that all is well or that evil and unfairness have fled the current scene of life. We are offering our fellow human beings an encouragement that we find the common faith to continue believing that these things can be overcome. Merry Christmas, World!

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication at Southern Methodist University.