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Embracing the Bastard Jesus
By Irene Monroe
One of my Sunday school teens, Jamal, asked me several Advent seasons ago if the church was going to hear the usual Christmas sermon about baby Jesus being born in a manger. Because if so, as he pointedly said to me, “I ain't feeling it, Rev.”
I have been bothered every Christmas by our culture's egregious form of commercialism that robs the season of its spiritual meaning – as well as our anemic recognition of other religious holidays like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and the celebration of the winter solstice. And at that moment, I was both bothered and challenged by the teen's remark.
Jamal was tired of hearing the same story about the same cast of characters in the Nativity narrative that rendered the same ending, and wanted to know, since he had to attend service on that day: What did Jesus' birth have to do with him and his family?
Born of a “virgin” – in Mary's day that meant a young teenage girl – Mary was pregnant before marriage with Jesus. In the economically distressed area of the Bronx where I was first sent as a pastor, the church I served was just across the street from a housing project where there were many baby Jesus stories of young black mothers like Mary.
Born of a “virgin” – in Mary's day that meant a young teenage girl – Mary was pregnant before marriage with Jesus. In the economically distressed area of the Bronx where I was first sent as a pastor, the church I served was just across the street from a housing project where there were many baby Jesus stories of young black mothers like Mary. However, society immediately stigmatizes these unwed mothers as promiscuous and wild. At the birth of their children, society marginalizes, castigates and unabashedly calls and treats them as bastards. And as a pejorative epithet, both mother and child are made to experience a shared guilt and shame.
Similarly, viewed as morally reprehensible by both Jewish social and cultural laws, Mary's pregnancy posed problems. Betrothed to Joseph, Mary's commitment of marriage was more binding than an engagement, and could only be severed by a divorce. However, according to Jewish custom, if a betrothed woman became pregnant and not by the man she was betrothed to, she was scornfully viewed as an adulteress, and according to Jewish Law, could be executed.
According to the views of medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1275), if Mary was an adulteress that made Jesus an illegitimate child. In his magnum opus The Summa Theologica , Aquinas wrote, “I answer that, Children are of four conditions. Some are natural and legitimate, for instance those who are born of a true and lawful marriage; some are natural and illegitimate, as those who are born of fornication; some are legitimate and not natural, as adopted children; some are neither legitimate nor natural; such are those born of adultery or incest, for these are born not only against the positive law, but against the express natural law. Hence we must grant that some children are illegitimate. . . Although those who are born of an unlawful intercourse are born according to the nature common to man and all animals, they are born contrary to the law of nature which is proper to man: since fornication, adultery, and the like are contrary tot he law of nature. Hence the like are not legitimate by any law.”
While Mary's pregnancy is lauded in Christian tradition as immaculate and the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit of God, in many feminist Christian circles Mary's pregnancy raises a suspicious eye. These communities question society's attitudes then – and now – about unwed mothers having children outside of the institution of marriage.
According to Jewish Law, these children of unwed mothers are called mamzerim (Hebrew for bastards), and are subject to a variety of restrictions and discriminations; thus, do not share the privileges of God's children. For example, In the Jewish text Deuteronomy 23:2 it states, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”
And because Mary's pregnancy came at a time when she was an unwed woman, Jesus' birth came at a difficult time along the human timeline. As an adult, Jesus was viewed as a religious threat to conservative Jews because of his iconoclastic views and practice of Jewish Law, and viewed as a political threat to the Roman government simply because he was a Jew. However, as an infant, Jesus being born in the non-traditional Jewish family was also about the struggle for human acceptance.
Similarly, in my congregation, Jamal was born during a difficult time along the human timeline. Born as a black male into a society where the police profile and hunt black males as if on an urban expedition, Jamal was also born into a non-traditional family.
Called and treated as a bastard by society because his mother gave birth to him while a teenager, Jamal bears the sins not of his mother, but instead he bears the sins of society's treatment of him and his mother as an illegitimate family.
Acceptance of Mary's pregnancy as an unwed mother upholds the ethos that no child, no matter what his or her station in life might be, should be left behind. And it also symbolizes that those relegated to the fringes of society – the bastards – are the very ones that Jesus' birth symbolizes and stands for.
In many feminist Christian circles, an acceptance of Mary's pregnancy is not only the exaltation of the lowly, but it is also the exaltation of the different and diverse human configurations of the beauty of God's family. Acceptance of Mary's pregnancy as an unwed mother upholds the ethos that no child, no matter what his or her station in life might be, should be left behind. And it also symbolizes that those relegated to the fringes of society – the bastards – are the very ones that Jesus' birth symbolizes and stands for.
Although Christmas is mostly thought of in terms of feasting and celebrating, Jesus' birth is about the celebration of all families. Similarly, when I think of the birth of Jesus, one of the themes that looms large for me is homelessness, and how that social issue connects to the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Why homelessness? Because many of us, myself included, do not really have a home to go to where we can sit at the family table and be fully out. Or, if out, we are not fully accepted, because we are the bastards – the illegitimate ones – in our families. As with Mary and Joseph during the time of Jesus' birth, we travel from inn to inn to find there is no room.
In Luke 2:6-7 it states, “While they were there the time came for [Mary] to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son – her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Our birth, as individuals and as a LGBT movement, mirrors that of Jesus. It comes at a time when there is neither room nor tolerance for us at a difficult time along the human timeline. As we celebrate this holiday season, let us enjoy our time.
Let us make home, if not with biological families, then certainly with beloved friends.
And let this season serve as a marker that invites us to find home for the holidays and beyond.