As we approach Christmas each year, I often find myself informally wondering why I celebrate this festival other than for tradition's sake and indeed the sake of my children. I have, over the years, kind of ignored the meaning of Christmas because, to be honest, I have not known what to do with it.
I, like many other people, have an issue with the idea of a literal virgin birth. I just can't buy it. Call it lack of faith, cynicism, call me a heathen. Whatever you call it is not going to change the fact that I have never, even when I was a fully signed up evangelical, bought into it. There lies a problem in here, however, because it, to me, is a myth that is woven into a real story. At some point, we know that a woman called Mary gave birth to a baby she called Jesus. So on the one hand, whilst I find no meaning in the orthodox, I see the potential for meaning in another. A meaning which I think is not exclusive to those who are comfortable with the normal orthodox creeds of the church or those who have found a deep metaphorical/physical meaning in the Christ.
A couple of days ago, I was reading the news when I stumbled across a story about a lady called Gulnaz. This lady had just been pardoned by the President of Afghanistan and released from prison. Her crime? She had been raped and conceived a baby who she gave birth to in prison after being accused and charged of adultery. She is one of thousands around the world today in similar situations and circumstances. Now you might think this is a step in the right direction for Afghanistan that she is being pardoned, until we find out that the conditions of her release is that she is to marry the man who raped her. Indeed, to even need to be pardoned for being raped is a brutal injustice in itself.
As I read it the story suddenly found a direct link to Christmas. Regardless of what you may believe about God incarnate being born of a virgin, there is a very strong link between Mary and Gulnaz. They are almost one and the same. We see two girls facing an incredibly bleak future.
In first Century Palestine, the laws on sexual morality were as stern and strict as the Sharia law we see in some Muslim countries today. In the New Testament we see a religion, society and culture that was in deep inner conflict fighting to create and maintain its identity under threat of the pagan and brutal occupation of the Romans.
In this context we have a young girl, perhaps as young as twelve years old who is betrothed (as good as married) to a man called Joseph. She finds herself pregnant and it appears that her betrothed is not responsible. Now regardless of how she conceived. Regardless of if she was touched by God, laid with Joseph, perhaps even been raped, she was now an adulteress in the eyes of Jewish law. In Jewish law she was facing either execution by stoning or being sent away from her family. The only other alternative was perhaps to simulate demon possession so that she could live as an outcast but at least be left alone. This is a practice that we see in the New Testament by many people who were, perhaps, unable to live within the pressures and confines of religious oppression and conflict.
It would appear actually that expulsion occurred. Joseph and Mary disappeared first to Bethleham. The Gospels tell us that this was down to a census being performed. Geza Vermes, perhaps the leading expert on Jesus today, informs us however that any census that occurred around that time happened 10 years after the supposed birth of Jesus. Similarly we are told that Mary and Joseph then find their way to Egypt to escape the slaying of the innocents. Once again, there is only mention of this in the book of Matthew with no evidence or recording elsewhere.
Could it be that Mary was expelled from her family and fled far away because of the simple fact that she was either told to or she feared for her life? Did she actually persuade Joseph that she was a virgin who had conceived by God? Did he merely believe her when she told him she had been raped? We just don't know. The simple fact is, it is likely that the life of Jesus was profoundly affected by this expulsion and this injustice towards his mother.
Is that why Jesus was comfortable identifying with outcasts? Is that why he felt so much pity for the adulteress in the street or the prostitute that washed his feet and dried them with her hair? Is that why he found his place as one of the hermit like mystics that scared as much as they mesmerised the public? These strange holy men, such as Jesus or Honi, appeared to have a direct contact with God without need for the ritual or the synagogue or the law. Is that the only way Mary could have returned to her home? Were the crowds that would otherwise execute her, too scared of her mystic son? Is this why Jesus the man had such a sense of injustice and human rights? Finally was it the love of his mother that led him to forgive?
Even when he too was sexually humiliated in his final flagellation by being stripped naked, perhaps even himself being raped, and hung to a cross, was it the notion that his mother has gone through the same humiliation and yet still had capacity to love that empowered him to forgive, love his persecutors and also find the strength to show compassion for a fellow prisoner on a cross.
I am not interested in conspiracy theories or cover ups. Many good people find worth in the nativity story as we are taught it. On the other hand I am not interested in institutions that depend on miracles to survive. What interests me is that this happy time of year (for most people) was born from the worst imaginable suffering a young innocent girl might endure. There is a meaning to Christmas that you do not need to be Christian to adopt. Christmas can represent the empowerment of the weakest in the worst conceivable situations. Even the most demonised ridiculed people of any society can turn their own society around.
But let us not leave out those of us who have not suffered in any huge way. In this story there is also the notion that what say, how we act and what we believe, has a direct influence on our own children and those around us. We have a choice as to whether we help them to be instruments of hate or love or even apathy. Maybe we could use Christmas to recognise this responsibility and the ones affected by it.
Finally, little thought finally towards Gulnaz who walks towards a life that flows ever distant from the life she might have dreamed of as a girl. In the photo of her and her child we see a woman brutally beaten down and yet, she lovingly holds this baby. A child whose father is a rapist. Perhaps when we next go to a carol service, the least we could do is spare a thought for her as we sing about the little town of Bethlehem and the words "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight".