Mary Knew

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about as the Christmas songs start to pour into my life. “Mary Did You Know” is is a Christmas classic, but the premise is pretty silly. Because according to Luke 1:30-33, Mary knew, ya’ll. Mary was told God’s plan from the start. Mary knew, and incredibly, she believed.

But what did Mary’s parents believe? What did her family think had happened to her? What did her friends believe? None of the gospels say, but we know Joseph’s first response was to quietly and politely call off the betrothal.

He didn’t believe her. Why would he?

It would have been so much easier for all of them to simply believe that she was lying to get out of trouble. Or to get attention. Or that she was mentally unwell. There must have been people who knew her well, who were once her friends, who turned away from her and rejected her because of the scandal she represented.

At Christmas we often focus on Mary’s obedience, but that obedience came with a price. She believed, and was disbelieved by those around her.

Lately the news have been full of stories by women who were disbelieved for years, even decades, and only now are able to tell the truth.

And people will still find a way to disbelieve them, because according to the ways of the world, women are less valuable than the institutions that we feel obligated to protect.

They’re less valuable than a successful Hollywood producer. They’re less valuable than an acclaimed comedian. They’re less valuable than a U.S. Senate seat.

But when God came to earth to live among us, he went to a young unmarried woman. Someone with no wealth, no power, no authority. The angel said “God chose you,” and Mary said “let’s do this.”

Mary had to have known that she wouldn’t be believed. She had to have known that good, religious, upstanding people in her community would turn their back on her. She had to have known that this road would only lead to suffering.

And this is what she said:

With all my heart I praise the Lord,

and I am glad because of God my Savior.

He cares for me, his humble servant.

From now on, all people will say God has blessed me.

God All-Powerful has done great things for me, and his name is holy.

He always shows mercy to everyone who worships him.

The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.

He drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power.

God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing.

Mary, pregnant and unmarried, defiantly declaring that she is blessed. A woman with no power declaring that God will drag the powerful from their thrones and lift up the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee, the outcast. A woman with no influence calling for the hungry to be fed and the rich turned away from their gluttonous consumption.

Mary, the revolutionary. The rebel. The resistance.

God chose her for a reason. God was pleased with her.

It’s also worth noting that the first person to believe Mary without being explicitly told by an angel was Elizabeth. A woman who was stigmatized and dismissed most of her adult life for being childless. She blessed Mary and praised God and Luke 1:42 says she did it “loudly.” Loud enough that the neighbors could hear. Elizabeth knew shame, and she was not about to let anyone shame her cousin.

My mother reminded me recently of an old song we used to sing in Christmas plays, “How Should a King Come.”

Jesus didn’t have to do it this way. He didn’t have to be born in a barn to parents who were temporarily homeless. He didn’t have to be a refugee fleeing to Egypt. He didn’t have to experience hunger and temptation in the wilderness. He didn’t have to face scorn for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. He didn’t have to be rejected by his people. He didn’t have to experience violence, injustice and death.

Jesus took his place among us. And it started with Mary, proclaiming the truth and carrying it, no matter what it cost her.

Listen to the women. Believe them. God will scatter the proud and drag our modern day rulers from their thrones, and we might not like it. But sooner or later we have to recognize God is at work.

And God is among us.

Merry Christmas.

The Twitter Wars of the Late 1700s

Every election season there’s a point, right about at the end of summer when rhetoric reaches an all-time high. Political ads are grainy and grim. Biblical apocalypse is imminent. People quietly block their relatives on Facebook.

You know what I find soothing in the middle of the election fervor? Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.

In case you somehow missed this cultural phenomenon (Lord knows I almost did) I’m referring to the hip hop musical about treasury secretary and founding father Alexander Hamilton.

The ten dollar founding father without a father

It’s one of those things that shouldn’t work, but it does work, and the music is amazing. Even better for history nerds like me, the songs reference some of the more eccentric details of our government’s formation.

Did you know that originally the office of the Vice President was awarded to the presidential candidate who came in second? Can you imagine?

It was supposed to prevent partisan fighting by forcing former opponents to work together, but people are people and it lasted all of three presidents.

Newspapers of the era were wholly owned by political parties,* and politicians often published letters under pseudonyms or letters written by supporters (the 17th century version of re-tweeting) to attack their opponents.

In fact the very first laws on our books about defamation were worked out because Alexander Hamilton used the “it’s not libel if it’s true” defense while attacking Thomas Jefferson in the press.

We tend to gloss over our first clumsy attempts at democracy, but one of the things Hamilton does extremely well is hit that perfect balance between idealism and realism.

For example, in one song, Thomas Jefferson boasts about the prosperity of Virginia and Hamilton raps back, “a civics lesson from a slaver/hey neighbor/your debts are paid/because you don’t pay for labor.”

The foundation of our government and our political system was a flawed landscape, and populated by characters every bit as slippery and morally questionable as the politicians of today.

And that’s why listening to Hamilton makes me feel reassured. And not just reassured, but hopeful. Because one of the other themes that runs throughout the musical is the idea that America is an experiment. At one point the titular character calls it “a great, unfinished symphony.”

We all have a part to play in this experiment. We can make things better, or we can make things worse. Just because our past is full of injustice, corruption and pettiness doesn’t mean we have to stay there.

Finally, here’s beautiful song from Hamilton about the very first presidential farewell address.


*The Whistlestop podcast did a really excellent episode recently about political journalism in this era. You can listen to the whole thing here.