a Christmas Meditation
by Andrew Marr, OSB
Carved, painted and printed images of Mary holding the Christ Child have so flooded the world that we can hardly imagine a world without them. For all the rich drapery in which Mary and the baby are often clothed, the image is so touching and so human that it one would think that to hold an infant in a nurturing way is the most natural thing in the world for human beings. Isaiah suggests that it is natural to hold and cherish an infant when he asks: "Does a woman forget the Child at her breast?" But he immediately adds a disturbing note by admitting that the forsaking of an infant by its mother can and does happen, in contrast to the God of the Israelites who would never forget a helpless infant.
We need no further evidence than the continued existence of human beings up to the present day for the nurturing care that parents have lavished on their offspring. It is also rational that such care be given because it is generally in the interest of a human being to have issue that can perpetuate one's genes. Ancient mythology does have some powerful example of nurturing maternal deities, of which Isis is the most celebrated example. However, already we run into a complication. The infant with the potential to be the perpetuator is also the supplanter. In addition to the evidence of nurturing care, there is disturbing evidence to the practice of infant sacrifice. Some writers are inclined to excuse those who made these sacrifices by extolling their generous hearts. The sacrificers loved their deities so much that they were willing to give up that which was most precious to them: their children. Perhaps. But the child is also the supplanter. Those men who happened to be kings were especially conscious of this troublesome fact. Some of these sons perpetuated the lives of their fathers, not by preserving the father's heritage into the next generation, but by anchoring the city gates to the religious cosmos with their blood. History is filled with examples of those men who, as rulers, had the most to perpetuate. The richer the inheritance to the son, the more important it be that the son be faithful to the father. Sons deemed unfaithful often met an untimely death at their father's hands. Either that, or the son fulfilled the father's fears and preserved his own life by supplanting his father ahead of schedule.
Other indications also suggest that whatever natural drive there may be for a parent to cherish an infant, there are also conflicting drives that work at cross-purposes. Sometimes, a large quantity of children is welcome because of the need for their labor. Farming families, for example, tended to be large on the American frontier. More important is the desire on the part of a father for an heir. Here comes the rub. Although a family will die out without an heir, too many heirs will weaken future generations. Moreover, in cultures where women are little valued except as a commodity to be bought from another family to perpetuate his husbands, a girl-child is apt to be viewed as a negative value. The girl-child will not help her own family but only another's, and she will be a financial drain on the family in which she is born to boot. Children, of either sex, who showed defects at birth, promised only to diminish a family's resources. These considerations led to the widespread custom of families exposing their infants so that most of them died. Not surprisingly, the large majority of these infants were female. It was no accident then that, at the time Jesus was born, females constituted roughly forty percent of the population of the Roman Empire.
The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke give clear indications that the world was not seen as necessarily a friendly place for a child to be born in. Gil Bailie and René Girard have commented on how the world has no room in the inn for God. However, it should be noted that there simply is not room for a child, whether the child is divine or human, or both. It does not matter if the dwelling place referred to in Luke is a commercial establishment or not. The point is the same: a pregnant woman about to deliver is not given special consideration. Not only is their indifference to the birth of a child, but sometimes there is the active hostility of Chronos. When Herod hears word about the birth of a special child, he seeks to kill him. It is only the protection of the Heavenly Father who communicates through dreams and his human agents that saves Jesus from being killed before he even has a chance to speak the Word of God with a human voice.
These infancy narratives emphasize, then, the importance and dignity of life by focusing dramatically on the birth of a child. True, this is a special child but, unlike the infants Zeus and Hercules, this child is fully human. The infant Jesus is neither a full-blooded deity nor a half-breed who is half-human half-deity. Rather. The child participates fully in both human and divine natures. In another contrast with Chronos in relationship with his son Zeus, the Heavenly Father of Jesus shows no sign of being threatened by this infant as a supplanter. It will prove necessary to hide the infant Jesus in order to protect him from hostile humans but, far from seeking out the infant to destroy him, the Heavenly Father sends dreams to certain men to insure that the child is kept safe. Likewise, Mary offers a strong contrast to Hera as a mother-figure. Mary welcomed Jesus into the world when she said to the angel: "Let it be unto me according to your word." Hera was jealous over the imminent birth of Hercules because the child would foil her own political machinations. Whereas Hera had to be tricked into giving milk to the infant, Mary gave her milk freely.
In these stories, God is revealed in the form of a child who needs to be held and cherished. The very life of the child depends on the willingness of other human beings to protect and sustain that life. That the vulnerability of the child Jesus is no joke is shown conclusively by the fact that this same person was indeed killed approximately thirty years later. This is to say, in Jesus, God became as vulnerable as the many infants who were intentionally exposed to the elements. Mary and Joseph, on the other hand hold the baby Jesus and do whatever is needed at the time to protect him. What is revealed to us in this entry of God into human nature is the fundamental truth that not only this particular infant should be held and cherished but that every infant likewise should be held and cherished.
Chronos and Herod exemplify the paternal model that seeks to exercise the absolute right of life or death of his child. This so-called right is not based on any consideration of a right-to-life on the part of the infant. The decision is solely based on the preferences and considerations of the dictatorial father. (Note: the mother was given no rights in this scheme of things. The vast number of abortions ordered in the ancient world were the unilateral decision of the father!) Over against these masculine models, the Gospels put forth contrasting ones. The shepherds are told of the birth by an angel and they come to the manger to pay homage to the child. This would have been a pretty rough group of men, themselves in a marginal relation to the rest of society. At the other end of the social scale are the Magi. Here are three men capable of bringing rich gifts to welcome the child into the world. That these visitors are all male need not be construed as male privilege, although it could reflect the tendency not to mention women if it could be helped. (Jesus made sure that some women could not be totally wiped out of the historical record of his life!) Hera, notwithstanding, women have an instinct to nurture their infants to the extent that refusal of this quality is the exception. Men have to make a more intentional effort to hold and cherish the infant, to welcome the infant into the world. That is why it is the male population that especially needs the model offered by Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi.
In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Start demonstrates how the survival and later triumph of Christianity was due to the way Christians followed these models of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi. It was not just the number of conversions that increased the proportion of Christians to the rest of the Roman population. Christians did not abort their babies and, needless to say, did not go in for infanticide. Not surprisingly, women soon made up a much higher percentage of the Christian population than they did in the rest of the Empire. Such was the result of not killing most of the female infants or forcing women to undergo abortions under conditions that brought many women to an untimely death. (These comments are not the last word for the abortion debate in today's circumstances, but they are a significant part of the picture.) Moreover, when devastating plagues struck the Roman world, the Christians held and cherished their brothers and sisters who were afflicted. Although some died as a result of their nurturing work, many survived because they were taken care of. This behavior, in itself shifted demographics in the favor of the Christians.
Did Mary start a revolution in human consciousness by consenting to give birth to Jesus and then nurture him through infancy? That would be an exaggerated claim, given the many women (and men for that matter) who did nurture their children and sometimes, even the children of others. On the other hand, although there are maternal images in ancient art, where Isis is among the most powerful in the Mediterranean world, it is in the two Christian millennia where the image of a woman holding her infant child has really proliferated. If Rodney Start is correct in his sociological analysis of the Church in the early Christian centuries, then the future survival of Christianity depends on renewing our devotion to the model of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi.