For Christians celebrating the Christmas season, our eyes are fixed upon the Christ child, the tiny babe who is the incarnation of the Holy God. There is perhaps no more iconographic image in all of Christendom than that of the nativity scene: Mary tenderly holding the infant Jesus, while Joseph tenderly watches over them both. American culture particularly loves and worships the idea of babies, so the image of Mary and her infant child evokes deep feelings of religious devotion and pathos.
But while our country loves the abstract idea of an infant, we fail to truly deal with the realities of what it takes to raise a child into adulthood, especially for those already on the margins, like Mary's precious baby boy. We love cute babies, but not sustained conversation regarding the food, clothing, shelter, care, education, and sacrifices needed to rear that child from infancy to adulthood. I think that many of us embrace the Christmas story because it is about a baby and the iconic image of a tender infant in his mother’s arms. I wonder if we would embrace the Christmas story if we truly understood that it is as much about death as it is about life?
Until very recently, with the advent of modern medicine, there was a significantly high possibility that mother or child, or even both, would die in childbirth. And in many countries, this is still the case. There are far too many places, even in the United States, with high rates of infant mortality and/or mothers who die or experiencing life-altering complications after giving birth. Mary, a pregnant teenage girl, would have known of women who died while giving birth, perhaps even someone within her own family.
When the angel greets Mary with news of her impending pregnancy, he tells her to “fear not.” I wonder if Christians take seriously all of the fears that Mary may have had in light of this news. Was this news a death penalty as much as it was a proclamation of life? Will our Christmas carols sing of Mary's fears? Fear of being ostracized or even put to death because of her pregnancy; afraid of the pain and travail of childbirth; fear that her friends and families wouldn’t believe or support her; fear that neither she nor her child would even survive his birth.
Unless we are ready to sit with death, we are not prepared to fully embrace the message of the birth of Christ. Jesus is a child born to die and his mother is a girl chosen to risk her very life to bring him into the world. There is no Christmas story without the shedding of Mary’s blood, the tearing of her tissues, and the breaking of her body, so that the Savior could be born.
This Christmas season, I am thinking about death and broken bodies. I am thinking about Sandra Bland’s death in a lonely jail cell; I am thinking about the 13 known victims of a police rapist; I am thinking about Tamir Rice’s family spending yet another holiday without him. I am thinking about Freddie Gray and Miriam Carey and Trayvon Martin and Tanisha Anderson and Mike Brown…and the list of so many others. It is Christmas and I am sitting with violent and brutal death in a way that seems more appropriate to the Easter Season than the Advent Season.
But maybe that’s what we need to do for Christmas. The same Mary who tenderly cradles the infant Jesus is the Mary of all the famous pietà images: the sorrowful mother holding the dead body of her crucified son. Did Mary cradle the infant Jesus and think to herself: “I am holding a child who is destined to die?”
This Christmas, I am holding in prayer the countless black and brown mothers who will cradle their precious children on Christmas morning, wondering if their son or daughter will one day be a hashtag…destined to die before their time at the hands of extrajudicial violence. I am grieving with families for whom there have been no tidings of comfort and joy. I am mourning with those for whom race or social caste creates life under a penalty of death. And in the true spirit of the Advent season, I simply work and wait for justice. And even when justice has been long delayed, I will not lose hope in my belief that God is still with us.