Disgrace. We often reserve the word to describe the painful public shaming that so often follows epic leadership fails. But disgrace can also haunt us privately in the shadow of our regrets. As leaders, disgrace often conceals itself behind seemingly benign rehashes of If only… What was I thinking…Why didn’t I…I could have… I should have. Whether publicly conferred or privately imagined, disgrace is abusive.
A few weeks ago, we honored Jesus’ birth. Not long from now, we will honor His resurrection. Both Christmas and Easter celebrate God’s grace. And here, between the cradle and the cross, I have been thinking about how prominently dis-grace was featured in the narrative of the birth of grace.
Before grace was incarnate via Jesus in a stable,
two women chose to disown disgrace in their lives.
Disowning disgrace is embedded in the very roots of the Christmas story. (Perhaps it is in the making of all of our stories.) It was certainly in the telling of Mary and Elizabeth’s stories.
Gabriel’s final words to Mary were, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1.38)
When the angel left, Mary packed her bags and journeyed more than ninety miles from Nazareth to Ein Kerem, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist.
Please picture this: a young girl leaves home in a hurry, travels a week cross-country (alone?) to spend three months with an elderly cousin, and returns home visibly pregnant. If Joseph, her betrothed, initially presumed her unfaithfulness (Mt 1:19), odds are the townspeople did as well.
If so, her departure may have cleared his name
but it would not have cleared her reputation.
Mary returned to disgrace.
Though Mary made the risky journey to be in the company of those who believed in miracles, Mary may also have learned a thing or two about disowning disgrace from Elizabeth. Elizabeth had lived with disgrace for decades. She was a barren woman in an age that viewed barrenness as a curse.
My womb is also barren.
Life has never grown there.
Adoption was my miracle.
And though I am grateful to live in a culture that no longer views infertility as a spiritual condition or even an exclusively female condition, I still feel pain for Elizabeth. How cruel to interpret a woman’s status with God via the state of her womb.
The fact that Elizabeth lived with disgrace saddens me. But the fact that she owned the disgrace grieves me. While pregnant, Elizabeth said, “[The Lord has] taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25). She called the disgrace hers, which means that somehow, somewhere, for some reason, Elizabeth had decided to own it.
Almost two thousand years later, we know that it was unnecessary and even unreasonable for Elizabeth to own such disgrace. Statistically, there is close to a 50% chance that the problem lay with Zechariah. And even if the infertility was related to Elizabeth’s biology, it was not her fault, for fault implies choice, and clearly she did not choose to be barren.
But unearned disgrace is not sourced in reason: it is sourced in perception.
Disgrace is a public or private form of shaming.
It is the removal of, not the mere absence of, grace.
Elizabeth felt culturally disgraced by her personal barrenness. She could not distance herself from—refuse to take unearned responsibility for—the public dissing of grace in her life. Evidently, disgrace bows neither to reason nor statistics. But there is one action and one substance to which it must bow: the acceptance of God’s favor.
What cancelled Elizabeth’s unearned disgrace was her personalization of God’s unearned favor: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days He has shown His favor” (Luke 1:25). This certainty that God worked in her, for her, and caused His favor to rest upon her, was the antidote to Elizabeth’s disgrace.
I wonder how often we, like Elizabeth, own unearned disgrace?
- Do we doubt our calling when misunderstanding maligns our service?
- Do we feel shame when something reminds us of our forgiven past?
- Do we feel responsible when someone assumes too much of the story and, consequently, thinks too little of us?
- Do we wince when our learning as leaders occurs in public, wishing we could somehow begin the way we hope to end?
Here, at the very roots of the Christmas story, two women disowned disgrace. Neither public nor private shaming had power over Elizabeth’s soul any longer. God had taken disgrace away by the higher power of His favor. And regardless of the cultural shaming that may have threatened Mary’s joy, she held tightly to the words of an angel who twice called her “highly favored” (Luke 1.28, 30) and the words of a mentor who twice called her “blessed” (Luke 1:42, 45).
Today, as our memories of Christmas soften and our anticipation of Easter strengthens, may we too disown disgrace. As a community of leaders, let us follow the examples of Elizabeth and Mary by personalizing God’s love, and the favor Jesus secured for us via His journey from the cradle to the cross and beyond!