Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019, 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 9:1-6 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

            +In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus. No human person has yet been born without a mother, Jesus included.  As we all know, the Mother of Jesus was Mary.
Traditional Christians often hold up the Blessed Virgin Mary as the ideal of what a woman should be, that is, meek, mild and submissive, or in colloquial terms, barefoot and pregnant.   This view of Mary is both historically inaccurate and harmful, no doubt driven by the needs of insecure men who fear a loss of control over their lives and their world. The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has harmed millions of women over many centuries. Hiding within all the wonder and hurly-burly of Christmas is thousands of years of doctrinal female subjugation. These malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered. Many women still take their husband’s last name when they get married, and in many professions, women earn about seventy cents on the dollar compared to men. For the record, my wife has her own last name, and in many of our working years, she earned more than I did. And I am very secure with that.
For that security, I can thank the feminist movement which came to life when I was growing up in the nineteen sixties.  What is “feminism”? Feminism is a range of social movements, political movements, and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.  Feminism recognizes that in those societies that prioritize the male point of view, women are treated unfairly within those societies. Efforts to change that include fighting gender stereotypes and seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.
I see Mary as a strong woman. Having been born of a strong mother and married to a strong wife, I know a strong woman when I see one.   Mary was a feminist.
Mary was an icon, culturally, mystically, and liturgically. Icons, like the ones here on the walls of this church, are, as physical objects remote and stiff, and yet, the persons they portray are held close inside us – as intimate characters of our imagination. We transfer a trove of personal beliefs, emotions, and attitudes to Mary, Jesus, the apostles, and the other saints. We treat them as live people, whom we know, who are like us, who live with us — even though we could never meet Mary, Joseph, Jesus, or any other iconic heroes unless we witnessed an apparition. Inside our psyches, we view these icons as humanized individuals, after whom we model our attitudes.
What kind of Mary of Nazareth do we carry inside us? There is the belief that Mary was a kindly, most wonderfully eternal woman, that she was pure, and that she was generous, and… obedient.  Specifically about “obedient,” all of us know something about that happening when the angel appeared to Mary, announcing her that she was chosen to carry a miraculous baby. It was God’s plan that she should carry that baby. “Thy will be done,” Mary answered God when she heard the angel’s message. 
            That briefest passage in the gospels was viewed as proof of Mary’s unquestioning obedience, and it was used as a social directive for women to be obedient in general, and specifically towards men.  You may recall that until about sixty years ago, the marriage vows spoken by a woman in marriage ceremonies included a promise to obey her husband. To the men of the congregation, I say this, based on my personal experience: don’t expect your wife to obey you. If you want to stay married, you have to obey her.
If you pay close attention to the Mary of the Bible, there is nothing weak or immature about her. The woman who mothered God’s redemption of the human world cannot be anything but strong, and God affirmed her as such.
Many women in biblical stories appear in domestic settings.  Sarah is in her tent, baking cakes. Rachel is drawing water at the well. Bathsheba is taking a bath. Martha is fussing around in the kitchen. The woman who lost a coin is sweeping the house. But with Mary, there is no evidence of any domestic work on her part. We never find her cooking, cleaning, or washing clothes. But she is a mother, nonetheless, and a very special mother at that. She is a strong mother.
Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.  This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, and gritty, a strong woman in every way.
So imagine a pregnant woman, about to give birth. There were no hospitals in those days. And she was told, “No room at the Inn, go give birth in a stable, and lay your baby in a manger, a place where farm animals feed” It takes a strong woman to endure that!
And have any of you ever been in a barn or a stable? I have, and it is a very dirty place, not at all like the sterile environment of a hospital where most births take place in our culture. And the smell? Farm animals don’t use toilets!  It takes a strong woman to endure that!
Strong women make strong statements, like the Song of Mary, commonly called the Magnificat, in the first chapter of Luke. That song reflects the values that Jesus would learn from his Mother and which would animate his ministry.  That message was counter-cultural then, and it is counter-cultural now.  To get in the face of the powers-that-be to proclaim a message of that kind takes a very strong woman.
Strong women are assertive, and Mary was exactly that. Recall that at the Cana Wedding Feast, she spoke up when the wine ran out so Jesus could step in and do something about it. And who can forget Mary at the foot of the cross gazing at her Son as he was dying, and then cradling his lifeless body in Her arms. It takes a very strong woman to survive that experience.
Yet why is the notion of Mary being passive and submissive so familiar? Because that is what church iconology tried to establish. As she spoke out the famous “Thy will be done,”
Mary burnished her image as being given a command to which she answered yes. And yet… is this who Mary is, in the minds of women raised in the Christian tradition? I say no. In her real life, the historic Mary was a rebel. Mary was always an image of strength, a statement that strong and masculine do not always go together.
An attentive rereading of the gospels can establish with equal certainness that she was clever, strong-minded, a survivor, a leader, a woman capable of weathering hardship who could uphold her dignity in ambiguous and dangerous situations (pregnancy out of wedlock, to quote the most obvious), and to maneuver complex situations, including the announcement by the angel, in her own favor.
Mary was a super-woman. Against the notion that super-womanhood is defined by kindliness, sweetness, motherliness, gentleness, and other “soft” qualities only, super-womanhood is also resilient, fearless, hopeful, optimistic, independent-minded, and filled with a healthy curiosity. All of those attributes we find in women of today’s world. Therefore, it seems to me, it’s time that we look at Mary the non-submissive, the strong woman.  The time has arrived to see Mary as strong and as her own woman. I ask that you re-read the Gospels with a mindset free of what you’ve been taught in the past, and look for offer evidence of a different Mary, a super-woman encouraging what later was to be called feminism. You will see that Mary was a template for the feminism of today.
Mary’s independent choice to serve God rather than her cultural norms made salvation possible through the birth of Jesus. By saying “yes” to God, Mary was taking a risk. She put God before culture, something our contemporary world no longer does in many respects. So many people use “that’s my culture” as an excuse for doing something that is objectively undesirable, like college kids going on a drinking binge with their friends.
        The incarnation of Jesus, however, was non-cultural. With the birth of Jesus came human salvation. The salvation we will attain from his Incarnation is not something to be experienced in the afterlife. It will be the triumph of God over evil. Salvation is the coming of the Kingdom of God, or in the case of the Gospel of Matthew, which we will be reading this year, the Kingdom of heaven. The coming of Jesus in the Incarnation is an event that makes a statement that the Kingdom of God is imminent.  The Incarnation is God’s Kingdom coming, and God’s will to be done, here on earth, as it is in heaven. 
As you leave here tonight, ask yourself, “Who is God for me? Was God just a creator, who made the universe and then walked away, leaving it to its own devices? Or does God remain engaged with the physical world and the people within it? And do our prayers to God make any difference in what God does or does not do? How do we determine whether God did something acting through a person, or whether that person acted independently from God? The answer to all of those questions is a great mystery, reminding us that God is ultimately a mystery.  Despite all the books and homilies about God, we really know very little about God.
Jesus gives us the best possible insight into the mystery that is God. The very fact of God Incarnate in the person of Jesus proclaims a God who empathizes with us. The God in whom I place my faith and trust is not a God who will judge and punish human persons, all of whom are created in God’s image. God, for me, is full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering and of great goodness.  A God with these qualities who becomes a person in the form of Jesus will of necessity empathize with the human condition is at the heart of what characterizes the Kingdom of God.
The Jesus whose birth we celebrate tonight is a Jesus who accepts us as we are, a Jesus who cares for us.  So it all comes back to Mary. She was a human mother who raised a human child, and all that it implies.  Mothers are unique in their ability to teach their children empathy.
Women are absolutely entitled to full dignity and equality with men in both ordained ministry and secular life.  Those who oppose women in ordained ministry do the entire Christian church a grave disservice. That said, women are different from men in some areas that make them more effective than men in some aspects of ministry, namely in modeling empathy for the church and the world.
What’s empathy?  Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others — not just individuals, but whole categories of people: one’s countrymen, those in other countries, other living beings, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed, or those in need or people who are suffering. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like. Empathy means to stand in the shoes of another and see the world as that person sees it.
Objective research by respected psychologists tell us that there are inherited differences between the cognitive style of men and women—in other words, the way men and women think, perceive and remember information. These differences are immediately apparent in babies before they’ve been exposed to socialization. While most female babies give most of their attention to social stimuli such as human faces and voices, the majority of boys pay most attention to nonsocial, spatial stimuli—such as the movement of a mobile hanging above a crib.
Throughout their lives, male and female individuals continue to manifest these early traits in more and more complex ways. Therefore it’s quite logical that the empathy Jesus manifests throughout his preaching came from Blessed Mary his Mother. She made him what he was and is by showing him what empathy looks like.
Judgmental, authoritarian people, who are the exact opposite of what Jesus was, are the way they are, at least in part, because they lack the ability to imagine themselves in the shoes of the people they condemn. They deliberately shut off whatever the natural capacity they might have for empathy, all in the name of upholding some law or principle. They uphold principles rather than take care of basic and universal human needs like food, shelter and health care. We hear and see this all the time in public policy debates on immigration, welfare programs, and healthcare, where our conservative sisters and brothers elevate ideology and laws over meeting the needs of suffering people, and instead blame the person in distress.
Blaming the bad choices of a suffering person may make logical sense in many situations, but it also demonstrates a lack of empathy and is decidedly not the way of Jesus. People who think and act like that are just like the innkeeper in tonight’s Gospel, who neglect the humanity of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. People who reject the human aspect of other people neglect Jesus the human person. They neglect the Jesus who was naked, who was hungry, who was sleepy, who was sad, and who suffered pain.
Tonight’s Gospel makes us squarely confront the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of his family. Imagine a little baby born in a building meant to house animals, without the assistance of a doctor or midwife, and put in a trough where animals ate their food.  And in much of the world, women give stillbirth under crude conditions just like that, in the jungles of Africa and South America, and in the deserts of the Middle East, in crude surroundings, in unsanitary conditions, with no medical care.  And that is how Jesus started off His life, in the same way that millions of little babies still do today.
Whether we like it or not, North America and Western Europe are rarified societies in a very impoverished world.  Jesus, unlike us, was poor. Concern for the poor, not the comfortable, was what characterized His ministry. Why? Because He was poor, He empathized with the poor, not with the comfortable. And he learned and experienced that empathy from his mother, Blessed Mary, a strong super-woman. He could not have done what he did without her.  While we can agree that but for Mary, we would not have Jesus, we can also say that but for Mary, Jesus would not have become the person he is and proclaim his message as we know it.
Our salvation arises from God’s empathy for us in the coming of Jesus.   Through Jesus, God calls us to cooperate in creation to make our world a place where God’s justice reigns. God’s justice, through the incarnation, is based on empathy for the human condition. Without empathy, there is no mercy, and without mercy, there is no justice. AMEN.