John Beauchamp reflects on the reality of the people we meet in the Christmas story.
The Christmas story is one of vivid and familiar characters. Mary, a young woman embodying human perfection and spiritual purity and devotion to God. Joseph, a silent, strong and protective man who is prepared to take a risk for God with his pregnant fiancé. Shepherds energetically running from the fields excited at the news they have just heard. The Magi, majestic and noble travellers undertaking a long, demanding and exhausting journey from the east to Bethlehem. And of course, at the centre, the Christ child. The perfect baby who ‘when he awakes, no crying he makes.’
Our nativity plays and pictures project images of fully able and healthy people who are able to fulfil their part in this unfolding drama with physical strength and skill and mental agility. But of course, as with many other Biblical events, if we stop to think about this and take a look at what the Bible actually tells us, we realise that this is our assumption and projection onto what is really a very sketchy story with very sketchy characters. The fragility of life in first century Palestine with the likelihood of birth trauma, disease, accident, physical and psychological trauma, PTSD, and people living with the effects of malnutrition and more, meant that what we call disability today was a very common experience. In this ancient social context though, where there was no definition of ‘normal’ or ‘able,’ and therefore no definition of ‘abnormal’ or ‘disabled,’ what we now call ’disabilities’ were not understood in this way. Much of what we see as difference today was just part of the stuff of life and many people that today we would label as disabled were able to live their lives in society without stigma or prejudice.
If we project this reality back into the Christmas story, maybe we begin to see these characters differently. Joseph, working in the dangerous profession of carpenter and builder with the resulting scars and injuries that are an inevitable consequence, and dealing with the continuing mental anguish and stress that Mary’s unexpected pregnancy has caused. The shepherds, each living a nomadic life in all weathers and terrains and facing the danger of wild animals and more, and living with the injuries and poorly set broken bones that are a consequence of this. The Magi, obsessed with the patterns of stars and planets and ancient manuscripts, and living with the neurodivergence that fuels this obsession. And then Mary…
Although I am blind, I was particularly struck by both the concept and the description of this image of Mary with the infant Jesus by disabled artist Mark Bratcher. Mary, you will see, is depicted as a wheelchair user. The mother of the Christ brings a richer and deeper embodiment and human experience into this story than the perfected and sanitised image that we more often imagine. Mary’s compromised and impaired body is in a very real way the fertile ground from which Jesus life is brought to birth. A life that will lead him to the experience of compromise and impairment in both his crucified and risen body. The wheelchair is of course a more contemporary symbol of disability, but adding this symbol and all of its associated meanings to this scene brings disabled people into the centre of Christmas in a dynamic way, rather than leaving us as spectators peering in from the outside as so often happens.
Maybe the thought that Mary, the chosen mother of the Christ, could have lived with a disability is shocking to some. The projection of physical as well as spiritual purity onto her has been a long-held Christian tradition. But this image projects a more profound view of Mary than that. A Mary who embodies the challenge of being human. The challenge that her son is born to enter into in all of its pain and struggle. And a challenge that Jesus comes to overturn as his brutalised and disabled body becomes his risen yet injured body, and entering fully into the challenges of being human becomes the way to eternal life.
How does this challenge our understanding of this story and its characters? How does this change our understanding of our God who is embodied through Mary and surrounded by a far greater diversity of human embodiment at his birth than we have really recognised?
For many people who find themselves labelled as ‘disabled’ today, it is a moment of profound liberation to find themselves in the Biblical narratives. Not as people within the accounts of miracles and healings, but in the central characters of the Gospels. In the central characters who are called by God to take up extraordinary roles in extraordinary circumstances. None more extraordinary of course than the role Mary was called to inhabit and the circumstances she was called to navigate as the mother of the Christ.
So, in this image of the disabled Mary there is a profound depth and beauty. A depth and beauty that reaches through the ideas of perfection we project onto her and opens up a perspective of even greater beauty and perfection. The beauty and perfection that is God’s gift to all people no matter how we are embodied.
I pray that this image may bless you at this Christmas time and open your eyes to the presence of the Christ in everyone you meet, regardless of how the world labels us. May we all find ourselves here in the stable and rejoice that God is amongst us.
About Mark Bratcher.
As a severely disabled artist, Marc Bratcher’s work constantly seeks to combine all available technologies in a continual experiment to push at the barriers of creativity. His practice involves a wide variety of disciplines including digital painting, artificial intelligence, digital sculpture and photography.
His work was recently exhibited at Peterborough Cathedral and more of his works can be viewed here
Mark can be contacted via his website https://www.marcbratcher.com/
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