‘And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
– Luke 2
In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific. In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced. But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.
When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back. By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary. While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”
By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and
a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace. And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted.
Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’ To a first century world grown numb to the headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”
It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joy…a SAVIOR has been born.” And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’
No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary. When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent. For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.
The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story. And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms. You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely. It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.
It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final. Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her. Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.
I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?
After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary. Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED. Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.
The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother. When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.
Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary is a figure of boldness and strength. Perhaps Mary herself can caution us against making assumptions about the women we serve this week. As much as we might tend to see them as simple or passive or powerless, Mary should remind us to look for the boldness that can face down empires.