The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on its website, has a wonderful slide show of paintings from the renaissance depicting the birth of Christ. This time of year those beautiful works of art often come to us through reproductions on Christmas cards. My husband and I support several charities that work in the emerging world so we also receive cards with nativity scenes reflecting cultures from across Africa and Latin American. Some of my favorite cards are the ones with nativity scenes from the Caribbean; I love their bright colors and exuberance.
Each of these cards, whatever the source, offers a different perspective on the birth of Christ; each presents a different emotion: serenity, joy, often the quiet peace associated with Christmas. What the artwork doesn’t convey, what our Christmas card may not fully be able to convey is the magnitude of Christ’s birth. Maybe the magnitude of this truly cataclysmic event is better depicted with words. And maybe there are no greater words then those of Mary.
The birth Christ ushers in peace through upheaval. It is a radical event. With the birth of Christ the world is turned upside down. Existing authority is challenged. Kings so terrified that their rage leads to mass killings. The significance of this night is not so gentle, not so calm. Not so much mentioned in our Christmas cards.
Few at the time of Christ’s birth are truly aware of what was about to happen, what would come from this birth. There are however two women who understood. Two women, one quite elderly, the other quite young, are the first to understand the enormity of this birth. They are the first to proclaim his greatness. These two women know that this child will create turmoil and challenge the status quo then and for all time.
The first is Elizabeth. She knows immediately. As her young cousin falls into her arms, Elizabeth proclaims: Mary you are blessed, you are the mother of the Lord. The messiah has come, Mary, and he is within you.
With her cousin’s words, Mary is transformed. With those words, gentle Maryrealizes that she is truly filled with the grace of God.Suddenly she knows that the world, not just her own life, but also the entire world is about to change. And not only is the world about to change but that she, a woman who up until that moment was completely unknown outside her family, will greatly contribute to this change. Through grace, Mary, a once timid handmaiden, becomes a joyous prophet. She gains a strong voice and is not afraid to proclaim what is to come.
Mary sings her praise, which harkens back to the words of women who have gone before her. My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
Mary tells us that her fear and confusion have turned into overwhelming joy. She is inviting us to glorify the Lord, her son, who will lead us out of darkness. The rule of fear is over.
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed
As a woman Mary was one of the least in a community controlled by men; her voice was not heard. And now, because of grace all generations will know that she is most worthy in the site of God. The status quo has changed.
Mary is blessed so that we may share in that blessing. So that we may serve as a blessing to other women who are oppressed, who are silenced, considered the least or whose poverty threatens their life and lives of their children. Mary is inviting us to continue the blessing, to continue to challenge the status quo wherever it is one of oppression.
And his mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
Mary tells us that those who regard themselves above others will be swiftly cast aside. Authorities who judge harshly, without compassion will be brought down; they will no longer have authority over those in need. Power has shifted.
But for those who follow him, he will judge them only with compassion and His mercy will be evidence of his unconditional love. Mary is asking us to share what has been given to us so freely: mercy. She is asking us to show compassion especially toward those who have suffered at the hands of the proud and the self-serving.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary is foretelling a new world order. Rulers who abused their power will be replaced by the very people they tried to supress. Their rule will be thwarted by those who are a channel for grace. Words of sedition.
Those who hunger for food, comfort, love will have their fill. Those who are unwilling to share freely of their resources and talents will become the hungry. Mary is telling us that to follow her son means we must welcome those considered the least into our hearts and our lives, without judgment.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of his mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Mary tells us that God keeps his promise throughout eternity. We may fail; we may cause injustice. But God does not fail.
It’s no wonder that reciting the Canticle of Mary was banned from being recited in public by the Guatemalan and other oppressive governments.
We have been given the tools of grace, mercy and many blessings so that we too may transform the lives of those in most need. Mary’s words are clear: following her son means standing with the least until they are standing on their own.
Merry Christmas and in the New Year may you challenge the status quo wherever it oppresses the children of God.
Gerardine Luongo Ranft is a Catholic freelance writer who also works in the field of international development.