Friday, December 15, 2006

Mary the unwed mother, the refugee

The Incarnation in cultural terms

Philip Yancey

Perhaps the best way to perceive the “underdog” nature of the Incarnation is to transpose it into terms we can relate to today. An unwed mother, homeless, was forced to look for shelter while traveling to meet the heavy taxation demands of a colonial government. She lived in a land recovering from violent civil wars and still in turmoil situation much like that in modern Darfur, Iraq, or Somalia. Like half of all mothers who deliver today, she gave birth in Asia, in its far western corner, the part of the world that would prove least receptive to the son she bore. That son became a refugee in Africa, the continent where most refugees can still be found.

I wonder what Mary thought about her militant Magnificat hymn during her harrowing years in Egypt. For a Jew, Egypt evoked bright memories of a powerful God who had flattened a pharaoh’s army and brought liberation; now Mary fled there, desperate, a stranger in a strange land hiding from her own government. Could her Baby, hunted, helpless, on the run, possibly fulfill the lavish hopes of His people?

Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 40.


The Lazy Philosopher said...

I read this book for a college class and have loved it ever since. I use it in school with the kids now.

loy said...

Yes, it is a great book -- definitely worth reading, and not just written for the cash register...

Anonymous said...

You refer to Mary as an "unwed mother". This is incorrect, as I suggest you should learn your judeo-christian roots better. the enclosed will help you clarify the correct view, that Mary, indeed, was married to Joseph at the time she conceived of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, Charles Mollenhauer

The Process of Marriage: Kiddushin and Nisuin
The process of marriage occurs in two distinct stages: kiddushin (commonly translated as betrothal) and nisuin (full-fledged marriage). Kiddushin occurs when the woman accepts the money, contract or sexual relations offered by the prospective husband. The word "kiddushin" comes from the root Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning "sanctified." It reflects the sanctity of the marital relation. However, the root word also connotes something that is set aside for a specific (sacred) purpose, and the ritual of kiddushin sets aside the woman to be the wife of a particular man and no other.

Kiddushin is far more binding than an engagement as we understand the term in modern English; in fact, Rambam speaks of a period of engagement before the kiddushin. Once kiddushin is complete, the woman is legally the wife of the man. The relationship created by kiddushin can only be dissolved by death or divorce. However, the spouses do not live together at the time of the kiddushin, and the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship do not take effect until the nisuin is complete.

The nisuin (from a word meaning "elevation") completes the process of marriage. The husband brings the wife into his home and they begin their married life together.

In the past, the kiddushin and nisuin would routinely occur as much as a year apart. During that time, the husband would prepare a home for the new family. There was always a risk that during this long period of separation, the woman would discover that she wanted to marry another man, or the man would disappear, leaving the woman in the awkward state of being married but without a husband. Today, the two ceremonies are normally performed together.

Because marriage under Jewish law is essentially a private contractual agreement between a man and a woman, it does not require the presence of a rabbi or any other religious official. It is common, however, for rabbis to officiate, partly in imitation of the Christian practice and partly because the presence of a religious or civil official is required under United States civil law.

As you can see, it is very easy to make a marriage, so the rabbis instituted severe punishments (usually flogging and compelled divorce) where marriage was undertaken without proper planning and solemnity.

loy said...

Hi Charles,

Thank you for your comments, and you are correct in a technical sense -- but only in a technical sense.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which in that culture could be called the first step of marriage, and legally termed Joseph's wife, and yet everyone knew: she shouldn't be with child. In other words, the marriage was not a complete marriage, even in that day.

The point: under the law, Mary could be considered wed; but under social awareness, Mary was unwed for childbearing. The distinction is profound -- and it's shocking to realize that Jesus had a "bad reputation," even after a. being born away from his hometown of Nazareth, born instead in Bethlehem; and b. then being raised his first years away from Nazareth, in Bethlehem and Egypt... even then, when He finally returned to his hometown, people still talked.

Even when He came back as the hometown "Messiah Boy," in His first years of ministry, He was still without honor in His hometown...

And, of course, going back to His birth: the only reason Joseph was still with her was because the angel appeared to him and told him the truth of Mary's pregnancy: it was virtuous and miraculous.

So, bottom line: although you are correct in a technical sense to say that Mary was married, you are very incorrect to assume that all the stigma of unwed status was not attached to her pregnancy.

The only term we can understand this in today is "unwed mother," which was even true then, in all its social power and judgmental stigma.

Hence my term "unwed mother," even knowing well the Judaic background of the day...