The Urgent Particularity of Advent

Jenny McGrath - The Allender Center - Advent - Particularity

All this month, we are wrestling with the story of Mary: her holy “yes” to the angel who invited her to turn her life (and the world) upside down, and the messy, disruptive realities of incarnation—wondering how our stories and relationships and cultures were changed when God took on a body. Here, Jenny McGrath, a therapist and Allender Center Fellow, encourages us to pause before we jump to the shepherds or the Magi, let alone the hope of peace and goodwill throughout the earth. How might our understanding of good news change if we consider the complex context and gritty, embodied particularities of this story?

a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or abstract quality.

In order to really honor the incarnation, we need to look at it for what it is—body. Body that is flesh, bone, ligaments, tendons, organs, a nervous system, and blood. Before the blood of Jesus there was the blood of Mary. Labor is an immensely holy and deeply physical experience. (Abby Wong-Heffter captures the elements of labor beautifully in her blog “Integration as Holiness.”)

As I reflect on the incarnation, Christ becoming flesh, I keep finding myself getting caught up in the flesh of Mary. We celebrate Christmas one day a year, but Mary anticipated this day of birth for nine months. She saw her belly expand, she felt her lungs compressed by the growth of our Lord, and she endured the ache of childbirth. As I meditate on this experience I can’t help but notice the similarities of what her body went through and what her Son would suffer just over 30 years later. There is almost no doubt that her body endured some form of tearing, bruising, and shedding blood and water. But why do we shy away from talking about Mary’s blood? We know the healing and life and redemption that comes through the blood of Jesus; but the blood of Jesus came from the blood of Mary. His blood shed for us, and her blood shed for him. I am not insinuating that we deify the blood of Mary, but I do think that it deserves our recognition. I think every mother that has shed blood in labor or in the loss of a child deserves our attention.

Each Christmas we sing that “a weary world rejoices.” Yet I wonder what it may be like if we didn’t universalize the birth of Jesus prematurely. That is to say, what if we paused first to think about the weary woman rejoicing? What if we honored a young woman who had known disgrace, judgment, pain, labor, and agony? Mary would have been considered a sexually immoral person for having conceived a child without being married. There are people that would have seen her and judged her for her growing belly, and not stopped to ask about her story of how she came to conceive. There would be assumptions and rumors going around about her sexual history and decisions. What must this have been like for her? She did not wear a sign over her head that spelled out to everyone how and why she was pregnant without a husband. She lived in a religious culture that was was hostile to anyone considered sexually immoral—much like our religious culture today.

What if we paused first to think about the weary woman rejoicing?

I imagine her being weary, and also rejoicing. The ambivalence of knowing that she was carrying light and life in her belly, while experiencing so few who chose to partake in the celebration. Instead religious leaders would scoff and condemn. They would think that they knew something about her story and had a right to have a say about her decisions about her body. Would they have agreed to her consenting to bear this child? We don’t know, because she didn’t ask a man. She chose to make a decision about her body, in her body, with her body. She bore the responsibility and the consequences for her decisions with honor.

I wonder if she would later tell Jesus the stories about the glances that she would get from Rabbis, or the murmurs that she would hear in the temple. Part of me wonders if this had any influence on Jesus’ emotions when he confronted religious leaders, or his heart as he bent down and talked to women that were considered harlots. Was Jesus angry about the way that his mother would have been perceived and treated in this religious culture because of her decisions about her sexuality and her body? Was he grieved for the women who were ostracized and condemned by those who knew nothing of their story of consent, or lack thereof, in sexual experiences? Did he grieve for them not only as the savior of the world, but as a son who knew the generational trauma of religious sexual shame? How does his experience influence him even now, as he listens to testimonies of women confronting their abusers? Does he still hold in his mind the faces of men and women who did not believe his mother and her testimony of conception?

Mary’s decisions about her sexuality brought joy to the world, and they also exposed her to shame and humiliation. Perhaps if we paused longer to think about the incarnation and the ramifications it would have on not only the world, but specific people, it would change the way that we recognize what good news is. The names, faces, and bodies of the people in Scripture deserve more asking and meditating about what their stories cost them, what they gave them, what they meant to them—before we try to apply their stories to our own lives. As do the names, faces, and bodies of those that are in our world today.

Mary’s decisions about her sexuality brought joy to the world, and they also exposed her to shame and humiliation.

May we be more gracious and curious to the stories and experiences of sexuality, consent, and conception, as they are hardly ever black and white stories. Stories of sexual history or sexual abuse deserve time, meditation, consideration, patience, and presence. May we hold the stories of people in Scripture and in our world today with open hands and hearts rather than judgmental eyes and pointing fingers. May we stay in the messiness, agony, and glory of labor before we prematurely proclaim the good news of a child born.

This Advent we have been wrestling with that theme of consent—the idea that Mary was invited to participate in something that would turn her life and the world upside down, and that she chose to say yes. What a holy yes, captured profoundly and beautifully in the Magnificat, the Song of Mary as recorded in Luke 1. In these words we’re reminded that that which the world has cursed and forgotten might be the very place where God comes in and changes everything, and we’re invited to consider how we might consent to participating in that movement of incarnation.

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”