Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Night

Athenae is right: Christmas is about this:

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the story still will be told: a poor woman traveling, hugely pregnant and exhausted, along on a dirt road. Her husband, going door to door, looking for shelter and finding none. Off the beaten track, in the hay beside the animals, she gives birth, and even though her child is manger-born, something happens: People come to see him. They tell others. Word reaches the shepherds high in the hills.

This is a holiday that, at its heart, is about grace from unlikely beginnings and hope in dark times, about stories spread among the poor and the outcast about someone who was coming to give them a chance. It's a holiday well suited to a time of ancient rites designed to remind people of light in the darkness: the Norse Yule, the Roman Saturnalia, celebrations of family and harvest, warmth and plenty, in the coldest and shortest of our days.
But it is also, and inescapably, about this (though I would never so forcibly tell her so; this addition is for my own sake):

TODAY the virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and the shepherds, glorify him who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.
Which, of course, is the problem, what Johannes Climacus called "the Absolute Paradox" (and why I would never force it on Athenae). But we have to acknowledge that this is just as much a mystery, too. For, as Sidney Callahan says:

MARY speaks for all those who have been lowly, on the outside, at the bottom, colonized, suppressed, andtotally outside of the halls of the princes and power wielders. If she has been favored and blessed, if she is a sign of the ultimate and greatest power, then the lowly who follow her can believe themselves favored and backed up by the universe. They may make their demands and unite against the princes who oppress them. If the hidden is real, if it is true that spiritual power is greater than the power of guns and bombs, then the lowly and the oppressed have hope. If the Almighty sides with justice, hope can be fulfilled and all can win equality.

It is no accident that almost always the cult of Mary has been a cult of the people. Everywhere "folk Catholicism" has main-tained a devotion to Mary in the face of opposition and disparagement from theologians and leaders of church and state. True the major central doctrines of Christianity were frequently obscured by crude superstitions and by importation of pagan myths and rites into the cult of Mary. But as at the beginning of the devotion of Mary and in the first developments of under-standing of her, perhaps it has been something more subtle which has fired this devotion. Perhaps it has been the realization in Marian cultic practice of the importance of the lowly and humble and outcast and oppressed who will triumph in the end. If Mary, the young unmarried pregnant girl, can believe in the incredible happening that she is a part of, if she can trust herself and believe in her role in the great story, then the most ordinary people can believe in their parts in the drama. Her exaltation is their exaltation. She carries the banner for all those powerless ones whom the princes have ignored as they go to and fro on the earth making policy, making war, making for-tunes, and bringing destruction everywhere. Mary is the cham-pion for all the obscure, peaceful ones who live in the corners of the world, who work, who help each other, who bear chil-dren and hope to see them live and prosper-those who do not aspire to the thrones and the vanities of princes.

The poor may have seen a defender of their cause in the woman and mother. She is beloved in an infinite variety of feminine forms, from young virgin to older mother. By exalting Mary as queen of mercy, queen of peace, a mother most gracious, a mother most wise, in all of the traditional devotions, there has been a hope that the feminine qualities which have been demeaned for so long in our society could have their day and could be influential in ordinary life. The high, cool exercise of power and judgment was never seen as part of Mary's role. She never rejected the poor and the lowly or those who tried and met failure time after time. While Christ's mercy and ten-derness and feminine qualities were often obscured by the male princes and powers who fought in his name and killed in his honor and taxed for his representatives, still Mary as mother could guard that aspect of the Christian message which her son's followers hid so successfully.
That is the mystery of the life of the man whose birth we celebrate, was all about. That he was proclaimed as the Creator of the Universe; but as far as the Romans were concerned, he died as a defender of the poor, proclaiming a kingdom that raised them, not Caesar, to the highest position.

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