In the accounts of our Lord’s nativity and early childhood, so familiar to us from many years of Advent and Christmas services, we often fail to recognize in them the gentle intimations of a greater nativity that is yet to come. The attentive ear, however, can discover in these passages the rich honey of a joyous mystery, as their words disclose the inner kinship of the events they record with those climactic events that are the very heart of the Christian gospel.
Many of the earliest events recorded in the gospels crackle with possible symbolism; anyone listening closely should notice several curious and arresting details. For instance, people often hear the allusions to Genesis in the opening words of the gospels and the development of Genesis themes in the verses that follow. However, there are many further features of these narratives to observe.
The characters of Joseph and Mary themselves might pique the hearer’s interest. Joseph, a dreamer who accomplishes a deliverance by bringing people into Egypt, is a character who might stir a vague sense of déjà vu, if not strong recognition. The Exodus looms large in the background of the opening chapters of Matthew, as Herod, like Pharaoh, seeks to kill the baby boys, and as people are divinely led to take refuge in Egypt, returning to the land of Israel at a later point.
Joseph not only echoes his Old Testament namesake, but also resembles Moses, as does Jesus. Moses is instructed to return to Egypt from Midian, as the men who sought his life are dead (Exodus 4:19). He takes his wife and sons on a donkey and heads back into Egypt, where there is a strange encounter and threat from the Lord on the way, with Israel being described as God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23). These themes reappear in Matthew 2, where Joseph receives a similar instruction to return to the land now that those seeking his son’s life have died (Matthew 2:20). Just as God entrusted Moses with his firstborn son Israel, so God entrusted Joseph with his only begotten Son. While a donkey is not mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, later Christian imaginings of the return from Egypt are entirely justified in making such a fitting poetic inclusion.
While English readers of the gospels may not recognize it, Mary’s name is a version of Miriam. Once again, there are curious parallels between Mary and Miriam. Miriam was the prophetess involved in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Micah 6:4). She was the one who protected Moses in his infancy, when his ark of bulrushes was hidden among the reeds.
It isn’t often noticed, but the story of the Exodus is a story of new birth. The book begins with women struggling in birth, with the multiplying of the Israelites, with the bravery of the Hebrew midwives, with Jochebed’s hiding of her beautiful child, and with the drawing of Moses out from the water and his naming by Pharaoh’s daughter. However, these characters significantly appear against the backdrop of a nation groaning in travail, yearning for its deliverance. As the narrative develops, the theme of the firstborn son and the opening of the womb assume prominence. The ritual of the Passover, the bloodied doorposts, and the law concerning the sanctification of the firstborn all lead up to and prepare for the departure from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, where, as the waters are broken and Israel passes through the narrow passage to a new life of freedom from the dark womb of Egypt, a sort of national rebirth occurs. The parallels with Moses’ own deliverance from the waters is by no means accidental. And, just as she is there at the deliverance of the infant Moses, so Miriam is the woman who leads the other women in song at the new birth of Israel.
The similarities between Mary and Miriam, like the similarities between Joseph and his Old Testament namesake, are striking. Mary bears, gives birth to, and protects the infant Jesus. She is present at Jesus’ birth and she is also there for his death. She is like a mother figure for the Church, much as Miriam was for Israel, the one who protected it in its gestation period and looked after it in its infancy.
The comparison between Mary and Miriam is suggestive of a possible avenue of exploration. Miriam’s life exhibited a sort of symmetry: she was present for the infancy of Moses, when he was drawn from the water, but also present for a second parallel water deliverance, where the nation was reborn out of Egypt and baptized into Moses. Does Mary’s life manifest any similar symmetry? I believe that it does.
In Luke’s gospel we see one veiled foreshadowing of what Jesus would later accomplish in the events surrounding his visit to Jerusalem with his parents at the age of twelve. The boy Jesus was lost for three days, only being discovered in the temple by the pair, who question him, to be answered in a manner that anticipates the way persons who did not yet understand the nature of his vocation are addressed by the angels and Christ following the resurrection. Other similar forms of foreshadowing can be found in the early chapters of the gospels, along with later echoes of the events and details recorded in them.
Jesus was born of a virgin’s womb, of a woman who had lain with no man. Jesus was buried in a ‘virgin’ tomb, a grave in which no man had lain (Luke 23:53). When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. When he died, he was wrapped in linen and laid in the tomb (it is worth bearing in mind that the manger probably looked like not unlike a stone coffin). Just as the story of Jesus’ birth began with Joseph and Mary, so the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection feature a new Joseph and Mary: Joseph of Arimathea and the various Marys at the cross and the tomb. I suspect we should also recognize parallels between the shepherds receiving the news of Christ’s birth and the apostolic ‘shepherds’ receiving the joyful tidings of the resurrection.
All these parallels are not merely for poetic effect: they alert us to significant symmetries between the event of Christ’s birth and the event of his birth and resurrection. In particular, they suggest that we should understand Christ’s death and resurrection as a new birth.
A parallel between the womb and the tomb is a common one in Scripture. The earth is the womb from which we were born and the tomb to which we will return. The woman’s womb is an extension of the earth’s own fecundity as the paralleling of the earth and the woman’s womb in the judgments of Genesis 3 suggests. The womb and the tomb are also poetically aligned in passages such as Job 1:21—‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there’—and Psalm 139:13-15—‘For You have formed my inward parts; You have covered me in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.’
In the New Testament, Christ is described as the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Colossians 1:18), the one who opens the womb of the grave. He is the one who breaks apart the waters of Sheol so that his people can follow him on dry land. He is the one who enables the earth to give birth to its dead (cf. Isaiah 26:19).
Of all the gospels, the presentation of the cross and resurrection as a nativity event is perhaps most prominent in John. Throughout his gospel, John presents certain figures in an almost iconographic fashion. Mary, for instance, is never named, but is simply spoken of as the mother of Jesus. There are also a number of occasions where characters are spoken of simply as ‘Woman’—Jesus’ mother (2:4; 19:26), the Samaritan woman (4:21), and Mary Magdalene (20:15).
In his book, The Woman, the Hour, & the Garden, Addison Hodges Hart argues that the figure of the Woman in John, variously refracted in these specific characters, is significant. Particularly critical to understanding the significance of this character is John 16:21, which literally speaks of the woman who, after the travail of birth for the child, rejoices when her hour comes, for joy that a man was born into the world. The language here is rich with connotations, recalling our minds to Jesus’ many references to his coming death and glorification as his ‘hour’. The figure of the woman is associated with the community of the disciples in John 16:22, with Jesus implicitly associating himself with the man to be born into the world.
The other references to ‘woman’ in John’s gospel fill out this literary icon. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus addresses his mother in a seemingly brusque manner as ‘woman’, declaring in response to her statement concerning the wine, ‘My hour has not yet come’ (2:4). In 4:21, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.’ Finally, Jesus addresses his mother at the foot of the cross, speaking to her concerning the beloved disciple, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ (19:26). After this we read ‘from that hour that disciple took her to his own home’ (19:27).
The new birth that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel is a new birth brought about through Christ’s own death and resurrection as the firstborn from the dead. This, I believe, is the birth to the woman that is spoken of in Revelation 12. The woman who gives birth is Israel and the Church, symbolically manifested in Mary and other women in the gospels, in each of whom we can see a different facet of its existence. In Mary we see the virgin mother. In the Samaritan woman we see the restored unfaithful woman (note the literary parallels between her and the unfaithful whore of Babylon in Revelation and see Warren Gage’s perceptive observations).
In Mary Magdalene we see the new Eve in the garden, her eyes opened to her Lord as she seeks for him as God once sought for Adam. As Hart observes, the fact that both the cross and the tomb are described by John as being in a garden (19:41) is significant, alerting us to the Eden themes that are foregrounded in the later encounter of Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Christ. The cross is the tree of life, from which life-giving blood and water flows from the wounded side of the new Adam (19:34), the one of whose flesh those who eat will live forever. The reference to rivers of living waters flowing from the belly (or womb[?]) of Christ may be noteworthy here (cf. John 7:38): it is from Christ’s body that the ‘birth’ occurs. The presentation of the beloved—and archetypal—disciple to his mother Mary at the cross is symbolic of the birth that has taken place, as he opens the womb and restores humanity to the garden. While the virgin birth of Christ is not recorded in John’s gospel, Mary does have a ‘birth’ within it.
Perhaps the forty days between the resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3), after which Christ ascended to the heavenly temple and the disciples prayed and worshiped God in the earthly temple with the women and Mary—note that their presence is made explicit in Acts 1:14—relates to the period of purification that was required following the birth of a male child in Leviticus 12:1-4. This would suggest a parallel between Anna and Simeon and the presentation of Christ in the Temple and the disciples and the events leading up to Pentecost (the presentation of the Spirit?) in the temple.
The prominent presence of women in the narratives surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ is a feature worthy of attention. It is important for us to appreciate how closely the women of the gospels are associated with Jesus’ body. Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary and born of her; Mary gives her own body to bear the infant Christ. Beyond this, we see the attention that certain women give to Jesus’ body. Mary of Bethany pours perfume upon Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). She anoints him for his burial and pre-empts Jesus own symbolic act in the following chapter whereby he represents his coming sacrifice for his disciples.
Later we see that women are particularly present at the crucifixion, even when the male disciples have largely fled. It is women who come to visit the tomb with spices, to lovingly tend to the corpse of Jesus. They become the first witnesses of the empty tomb and, later, of the resurrection. When Mary Magdalene finally sees Jesus, who she at first misrecognizes for the gardener, her first reaction is to hold onto his body.
The women face resistance or disbelief or abandonment of the male disciples. However, they are the ones who have the most intimate and loving concern for Jesus’ body. While the male disciples seem to focus more on Jesus’ mission and are closely involved with his activity, when the mission hasn’t started or has seemingly ended it is the women who come to the fore, exhibiting a profoundly loving concern for his body and his person in its apparent abjection.
The women are the ones who are found at the great bodily transitions—birth, death, resurrection. They lovingly stand with Christ at the dark doors of the world, when no others are to be found. They have a sort of bond with Christ that is closer and more intimate than the male disciples seem to in many respects. Important as the great acts of Christ in his earthly ministry were, through their attention to his body and his person in its abjection—Christ as infant, Christ as victim, Christ as corpse—the women are there at the most significant moments of all.
Drawing on these themes and observations, how should this shape our celebration of Christmas?
As we perceive within figures such as Mary and Joseph a deeper symbolism and series of narrative patterns at work, we should learn to discover within the nativity story the same sort of significance that the Israelites might have seen in the story of Moses’ birth and deliverance, a story that prefigured and was preparatory for their own, as they too would be drawn out from the waters at the Red Sea. The story of Christ’s birth anticipates the story of his new birth or new creation and the birth or creation of the Church associated with that. The nativity is a story in which we are subtly implicated.
These parallels can also enrich our understanding of the gospel and our place within it. It manifests a deeper unity to Christ’s work that we might not otherwise have noticed. It reveals something about the prominence and significance of the Church as a figure symbolically manifested in the gospels—the Woman. The Church is our mother (cf. Galatians 4:21-31), and individual churches can be referred to as elect ladies and sisters of each other, with Christians as their children (cf. 2 John 1:1, 13). It also discloses something of the neglected importance of the women as figures within the gospels.
This Christmas, as you listen once again to the story of that ‘first Noël’, I invite you to hear its gentle introduction of Easter themes. And, when Easter comes around again, may you hear the joyous tidings of a second Nativity.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scriptureseries on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.