Role reversals

On the treadmill the other day, the Martins’ “Heaven’s Child” cycled through my iPod and I caught for the first time something I had missed before: the interesting role reversal described by the chorus: “Joseph wept with wonder / as Mary sweetly smiled / because she knew this was Heaven’s Child.” I like this very much, especially the play on “wonder,” because it turns our typical assumptions about Mary (demurring and divinely pliant, maybe even a little simple) and Joseph (good guy but a little dense) on their head. Imagine the emotional imbalance that would have actually existed between two people in a relationship like that if one half had been singled out for divine revelation and immaculate conception while the other was left to … well … wonder. As scripture tells it, Mary had had time to “ponder all these things in her heart,” to come to terms with having been swept up in the downright baffling means to this particular eternal end. By the time of Christ’s birth, as the song imagines it, Mary’s contemplation gave way to a serene calm, born not so much of knowing (because I don’t think it’s sacrilege to propose that even the most faithful handmaiden of the Lord might doubt her sanity if she had just all at once been visited by an angel and made the living vessel for the Christchild), but perhaps of accepting (she had so much to accept, after all, for things turned out for Mary - as the first verse reminds us - not at all like she had imagined in the “prophecies of old”). It’s too bad that centuries of fetishizing the Virgin Mary have depleted much of the humanness of the story of Christ’s birth. Protestants haven’t done much better either. It’s pretty hard to get at the mysterious encounter between the human and divine when so often it’s dressed up in old terrycloth dish towels and threadbare dressing gowns and tinsel-trimmed angel’s wings of kindergarten Christmas pageants - pageants that for all their earnestness tend to have an inevitably cheapening effect. Don’t worry. I’m not so curmudgeonly as to advocate doing away with Christmas plays. They’re fine for what they are: religiously acceptable ways of making Christmas about us even in church, just like it is everywhere else. But they’re also part of a Christmas machine within religious culture that prefers its Marys and Josephs to be as one-dimensional as the wooden sheep and cardboard donkeys. Mary meek and mild. Joseph stolidly faithful. Easy enough. Now may I open my presents? Sure, but maybe after that, listen to Joyce Martin breathe something like the breath of new life into the image of the nativity, and Mary’s sweet shining smile of acceptance and Joseph’s weeping wonder.

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