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Lessons from the Gospels on Telling the Gospel Story

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth,
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to a new born King.”

I sat with my two daughters in church on Sunday as the congregation sang this popular carol.  I admit the words kind of stuck in my throat.  “Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth . . . “ But what about my daughters? I thought. What about me?  Was Christ not born for us as well?  Born to give us second birth?

I suppose some might say I’m being overly literal or overly sensitive - of course Christ was born to save women as well.  The intended meaning is clear.  Still, the lack of overt reference to women and to daughters hurts.  It renders women invisible within the congregation of God’s people and the story of salvation and it implicitly suggests that women lack the significance and worth to even be mentioned.  Thus, while the exclusion of women may not be intentional per se, I do wonder about the impact that this can have on how men and women perceive women and what the church itself communicates about the value and dignity of women. 

the gospel writers go out of their way to highlight the prominence of women at Christ’s birth

The concern here is not merely theoretical.  Last month, Judge Matthew Murphy handed down a shockingly lenient sentence for Christopher Belter, a 21 year old male who pleaded guilty to the abuse and rape of four women in 2017-18.  When announcing the sentence, Murphy noted that he was not ashamed to say that he prayed over what was an appropriate sentence in this case, suggesting that the idea for leniency came from God himself.  In spite of the grievous nature of the crimes and the clear testimony from a forensics counsellor that Belter was likely to reoffend, and in spite of an impact statement where one of the women compared the damage done by Belter to that caused by the forest fires she had seen raging across the country and her plea to the judge to firmly and finally put out the fire, Murphy awarded Belter 8 years of probation with no jail time.  The sentence felt like a slap on the wrist to the offender and a slap in the face to the victims.  Ignoring the needs and concerns of the women, Murphy prioritized and privileged the life and well-being of the offender.  The message was clear: the lives and well-being of the female victims were of less importance and of less value than that of the male offender and this was true not only for Judge Murphy, but for God as well.

Now, anyone who reads the Bible closely knows just how perverse it is to attribute this prioritizing and valuing of men over women to God and to the Christian faith.  In this season of Advent, one has only to consider the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth to realize how very wrong this is.  Writing against the backdrop of the patriarchy of the Graeco-Roman culture where women had little status and were given little attention, the gospel writers go out of their way to highlight the prominence of women at Christ’s birth (and death and resurrection) and indicate their importance.  Matthew’s genealogy foregrounds four women among Jesus’ ancestors - for no other reason than that they were foreigners and they were women.  

What seems clear is that women’s voices and women’s presence are all over the Christmas story

Luke is a little more subtle, starting out the story of the incarnation with Zechariah.  But Zechariah is very quickly silenced by God, after which the spotlight moves to Elizabeth who lifts her voice to bear testimony to the Lord’s redemptive work, not once but twice - first in response to God giving her a child and later in identifying the child Mary is carrying as her Lord.  

When Gabriel came to announce the imminent birth of the Christ-child, only Mary was present.  Joseph was nowhere in sight.  In fact, without Mary, there would be no Christ-child.  But Mary responds to Gabriel’s announcement with courage, humility, and openness to serving God and his redemptive purposes in this way.  She, by Luke’s description, is a model of true discipleship. Luke goes on to record Mary’s song, where it is clear that yes, Mary did know that the child she was carrying was the messiah who would right side an upside down world, giving hope and joy and life to the vulnerable and the oppressed.  What seems clear is that women’s voices and women’s presence are all over the Christmas story, participating in, testifying to, and receiving with gladness and joy God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. 

It is not the Bible and it is not God, then, who diminish and minimize and make women invisible.  But churches can certainly leave that impression when they do - when sermons, prayers, songs, and positions of leadership exclude the voices, presence, and experiences of women.  I don’t know where Judge Murphy got the impression that according to God, women’s lives are worth less than those of men, but based on my experience this past Sunday, it seems the church doesn’t always do a very good job of correcting this impression.  Put another way, against the backdrop of a culture that continues to diminish and minimize the lives and well-being of women, the church has an important role to play in bearing testimony to the value, dignity, and worth that God gives to all people.  And we can start to do that by attending to the language in our worship.  

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man  we no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of us from the earth,
Born to give them us second birth,
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to a new born King.”

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash


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