Is there any story in history as sentimentalised as the birth of Jesus?
Nativity plays are fun and cute, but the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are very different. Jesus was born into a situation of fear, hardship, shame, rumours of illegitimacy and all within a context of imperial oppression.
The word ‘revolution’ is normally used to describe human power to bring change or liberation. Revolutionary symbols reflect this: the hammer and sickle of human labour or the clenched fist of protest.
Jesus’ birth was the start of God’s revolution. He initiated it, his action is at the heart of it. And the core symbol of this revolution is a cross.
At that time, the cross was a method of torture and death, used by the Romans to suppress political troublemakers. But Jesus radically turns this upside-down. The cross is revolutionised into a symbol of sacrifice, love, forgiveness and transformation.
God invites us to be part of his revolution, to take up our crosses and commit our lives to this cause.
Using the story of the angel’s visit to Mary in Luke’s gospel, I will highlight 3 ways that we can learn from Mary, God’s unlikely revolutionary.
1. Addressing our fears
‘Mary was afraid at what kind of greeting this would be’
In the accounts of Jesus’ birth all the main characters are afraid: Joseph, the shepherds and Mary. To each, the angels say ‘Do not be afraid.’
Mary was a young Jewish girl, living in an age when women and young people had virtually no status. She lives in Galilee, a backwater in Israel at the margins of the mighty Roman Empire.
Mary was afraid ‘of what kind of greeting’ the angel brought. Perhaps she was used to announcements which were not good news.
Fear is something I am sure we can all relate to.
Addressing my fears has been the most significant aspect of my walk of faith. I have had times when I have felt paralysed by fear. And the last 18 months have been a time of increased anxiety for so many of us. The deepest pain I have had is to have friends lose their lives due to the impact of Covid.
Martin Luther King is best known for his incredible speeches. But what inspires me most is how he dealt with the fear provoked by constant death threats. King said:
‘We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear’
Joining God’s revolution will always involve addressing our fears.
2. Believing what seems impossible
The news the angel shares with Mary is probably the most incredible thing ever told to a human being:
She will give birth to the Son of the Most High. That he will have the throne of David. And that he will reign forever and his kingdom will have no end
These must have seemed like the most impossible words ever. Mary does not question ‘the why’ from a theological or philosophical angle. She asks the more straight-forward ‘how’?
‘How will this be…since I am a virgin?’
Mary is grappling with the impossible. As part of her response the angel says:
‘Nothing is impossible with God’
We cannot get away from the fact that the Christian message involves accepting what many consider impossible: That God exists. That He is a God of love who reaches out to be reconciled with us. That ultimate meaning is found in the grace and truth of Jesus.
These beliefs can revolutionise your life.
What I find encouraging is how these ‘impossible beliefs’ continually lead people to do concrete acts of compassion and justice.
Look at the logos of all these organisations which help homeless people:
Whether in the 1860s, the 1960s or the 2000s, all of these organisations were started by committed Christians.
Time and again, we see these ‘impossible beliefs’ put into action: a force for positive change and transformation.
3. Committing to where it takes us
‘I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said’
Revolutions do not get very far without people’s commitment. And Mary’s words in this passage show her resolve and obedience to what the angel has told her.
Later Mary sings a song, known as the Magnificat, which shows her grasp of the revolutionary nature of what she is part of:
“My soul glorifies the Lord…He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
This is revolution: a reversal of the social order which turns upside down a world corrupted by sin and injustice.
Many political revolutions in history have changed political structures or deposed leaders. But often the systems and people who replace them are little better.
And when it comes to homelessness, climate change or racial justice, we need structures and economic systems to change. But we also need people to change. Christian activism is at its best when holds both the structural and the personal together.
Dorothy Day, a radical Christian activist wrote:
“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross.”
This is what commitment to God’s revolution of grace and truth looks like: following the example of Jesus.
Like Mary, let us say ‘We are the Lord’s servants’ and join God’s revolution.
This article is based on a talk I gave at my church on 5th December. It starts at 1.04 following a London City Mission talk on their work with people affected by homelessness.