Don’t let the cosy stable fool you – the Virgin Mary’s story is brutal

Think oppression, displacement, refugees, genocide, anti-semitism, misogyny and abuse.

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And so she makes her annual appearance on the nation’s Christmas cards and in a million crib sets. Mary, Mother of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin, demure, devoted, obedient. Invariably blue. It’s not just the churched who love her; the fiercely unchurched are more than willing to gather at the manger in December to pay their respects.

This should be a source of joy for those of us in the church business. And it is really. But allow me to play the Grinch for a moment to make a missing-the-point case – and, please, this is not the usual attack on the Black-Everyday shop-fest.

The point I want to make is a political one. Mary’s story is brutal and about as far as it is possible to be from a pretty Madonna in a cosy stable, with cute and clean farmyard animals (no dung). It is about oppression, displacement, refugees, genocide, anti-semitism, misogyny and abuse.

Consider this: though the stable and animals are never mentioned, it is utterly plausible that the frightened young Mary had been banished by her contemporary Hebraic society to the ground-floor rooms of a household, where animals were fed from mangers, just for the shame of giving birth out of wedlock.

There’s no historical record of a census that forced Jews to return to their towns of birth under Emperor Augustus, just as there is no record of a massacre of male infants under the age of one year ordered by King Herod. But these were the casual oppressions and atrocities that were typical of the occupying Romans and from which a Jewish couple and their illegitimate child would be only too fortunate to escape to safety in neighbouring Egypt.

So this is not a happy story. And it’s a theological mystery for many of us how the more shiny, evangelising kind of Christian can claim that it is. These same proselytisers will spread their arms in a beaming grin and say that, at the other end of the story, it’s great news that “Jesus died on a cross for our sins”. To which a reasonable response might be that it can’t be good news for anyone, innocent or otherwise, to be nailed to wooden beams and left to die. Nobody would suggest that it’s good news that an innocent young woman is banged up in an Iranian jail, or that terrified families pile into flimsy boats in the Adriatic to escape persecution.

Back to the Virgin Mary, just one of history’s women silenced by men. Mary Beard, in her new short book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, doesn’t evoke her immaculately conceived namesake but does record what she reckons to be the first ancient literary example of a man telling a woman to “shut up”. It’s in Homer’s Odyssey and it’s Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, to wind her neck in: “Mother...mine is the power in this household.”

Fast-forward a mere millennium to Cana in Galilee and a wedding with an embarrassing catering crisis, at which a self-assured Jesus, entreated by his mother to assist, responds: “Woman, what is it to me? My hour has not yet come.” It’s not exactly “shut up”, but Mary is left in no doubt where the power lies in this household. 

It’s not an isolated incident of mansplaining in the gospels (or possibly messiahsplaining). Witness Jesus declaring “these are my mother and brothers”, pointing at his disciples, when Mary comes to take him home. Or the precocious “did you not know I had to be in my father’s house?” when the 12-year-old Jesus plays truant in Jerusalem. And, think back to the nativity narrative, when she’s told (no consent) by the male-named archangel Gabriel that her heavenly Father will make her pregnant through the holy spirit. Mary has to keep her own passive counsel and “ponders these things in her heart”. We bet she did.

Homer’s Telemachus is fictional, but we know Jesus to have been a historical figure. So biology tells us he had a mother. The trouble is that we lose this young woman in the demure Marian blue of Renaissance painting and the Catholic devotional branding of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nevertheless, try as they might, the male apostolic scribes can’t write women out of the gospels, which remain substantively women’s stories – the haemorrhaging woman in the crowd, the slutty Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the risen Christ, to name just three of many liberational female characters.

Their appearances are tantalising, because stories weren’t written from women’s perspectives in 1st century Judea. As Beard may affirm, they were told to shut up (not least by St Paul). And yet they are present down the ages, silenced in their time maybe, but now able to speak to us through scripture as equals in our own time.

A question arises as to whether we can or should tell our own stories, in our own way, that echo scriptural themes, about what offers salvation in a dark world, about what it is to be human in a cruel world beyond our control but in which there may still be a power of redemption. I’ve had a go at that myself, with a novel about a holy but flawed woman trying to make a decent fist of it in the horrors of contemporary Africa and the Middle East. 

Maybe we’ve lost the art of telling allegorical stories as the ancients did, stories that reveal transcendent truths through base human experience. But as we re-tell the story this Christmas, we might reflect that those who first told it didn’t think they were indulging in the fantastical, far less anything as cutesy and sentimental as our Christmas-card images of poor Mary.

Their story was about a real God who engaged with the real world, with a real person, among real men and women. And, for Christians, that’s the good news.

George Pitcher is a writer and Anglican priest. His novel, A Dark Nativity, is published by Unbound.