by Amy Orr-Ewing
In the run-up to Christmas, there is a peculiar amount of work to be done that might fall into the category of “physical and emotional labour.” This is the endless, unseen work of caring that generally, if not exclusively, falls to women. Despite all the advances in opportunity and equality in our society, women appear to carry the brunt of domestic and emotional labour. At Christmas time, it would be all too easy to exhaust ourselves further after the work, turmoil, trauma, and anxiety of the year that has just passed.
Centering a woman’s perspective at Christmas is about far more than empathising with the eye-watering feats of planning that go into pulling off seasonal festivities. Paying heed to a woman’s viewpoint is necessary if we are going to truly celebrate Christmas, because the central character of the Christmas story, other than the baby Jesus, is a woman called Mary.
At Christmas time we remember that an ordinary, young, poor, oppressed woman was chosen to play a significant and breakthrough role in the redemption of the world. Evil would be crushed and defeated through her seed. Her body was to play a part in showing the world that Jesus really is Emmanuel—God with us. Her theological insights and reactions are recorded for us in the New Testament.
By positioning Mary in this way, the New Testament is unlike any document of the era. We can see what kind of person is invited to be a gospel witness, a teacher of profound theology and an example of simple, humble faith. It is no mistake that a woman gets to be a part of all this, and that her voice, her questions, her fears, her actions and her obedience matter.
We first encounter Mary as a young unmarried teenager, but for many of us she remains fixed in our imaginations as a remote “other worldly” figure, with the faint glimmer of a smile talking to an angel or holding a baby. Held up by some as the unattainable ideal of purity or the example of perfect motherhood, Mary is a distant figure for us in our busy lives in this technological age. In our reading and telling of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, Mary’s point of view is seldom considered. In the many re-enactments of the nativity story around Christmas time, Mary is usually a mute figure, saying nothing as the story of the journey to Bethlehem, the search for accommodation and the birth of the child surrounded by animals, unfolds. We may be familiar with the star of Bethlehem, the manger as a cradle, the shepherds, the angels and the visit of the Magi. Portrayals of the nativity abound, but amidst it all Mary is a passive and silent figure. I once played the role of Mary in a school play and for the entire show I did not utter a word.
Yet Mary is described in Luke’s gospel as a woman who exercised choice, questioned things, reflected, responded, spoke up and demonstrated great faith. Mary had a voice.
I can remember exactly where I was when I was first truly struck by Mary’s voice. I had slipped into a pew in one of Britain’s most beautiful Cathedrals on a Wednesday at dusk for evensong. I was chilled to the bone in the moment of the service when the choir sang the words of Mary’s Magnificat recorded for us in Luke’s gospel: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”
I had spent that day sitting in the public gallery of a court supporting someone who was giving evidence in a criminal trial concerning childhood abuse. Mary’s words expressing hope on behalf of the poor, the humble and the powerless felt especially meaningful that evening in the aftermath of the horrors of trauma recounted. Until this point, Mary had been a somewhat remote figure for me. A woman often depicted wearing blue clothing in paintings, idealised as the perfect mother of a cherubic baby. Mary was stuck in my mind in suspended animation in the early stages of her motherhood, holding a baby and remembered each year as a rather remote figure when Christmas rolled around. Yet here was Mary’s voice, her actual words recorded in Luke’s gospel, prophesying about what Jesus had come to do, identifying Jesus as God, Lord, and the source of justice and mercy in this world. Mary had offered theological insights and shared her unique perspective on the person of Jesus Christ. Her front row seat on history had somehow passed me by. But I realised in that moment that Mary’s voice is worth listening to.
Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing is the author of Mary’s Voice Advent Reflections to Contemplate the Coming of Christ.