This week, I’m continuing my meditation on this holy Christmas season and how God enters into our world. At the end of my essay, I’ll share five other Christmas-related articles that have spoken to me, especially in this time of such heartbreaking war in the land where Jesus was born. Please receive Lily’s and my warmest Christmas greetings and prayers for peace, comfort, and joy.
Yours with love,
Last week, I began with the question, “How does God come?” We explored the story of Jesus’s birth and saw that God comes through patience, vulnerability, and ordinariness.
Today, I want to ask us another question that takes us a bit deeper: “Has God ever asked you to make a decision that changed your life?” This question leads us into Mary’s story and the mystery of how God is born in our world.
As we contemplate it, I invite you to pause for a brief moment to remember your own journey and ponder more personally: Has God ever asked me to make a decision that changed my life?
A Decision that Changed Our Life
In Lily’s and my journey, I remember moving back to Ethiopia in 2016. We got married in Addis in 2010 while I was serving as a pastor at a small church in the city. We then moved to Chicago, and I started a PhD program in theological ethics at the University of Chicago. My research focused on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how we can make new beginnings after we’ve been devastated. This focus was motivated by the political violence and suffering of children that I had witnessed in Ethiopia.
As prestigious as a UChicago PhD program may sound, it’s essentially a more-than-full-time job that pays less-than-minimum wage. Lily was adjusting to life in the United States and working as a skincare consultant downtown. These were intense, frugal years.
During my program, I had a growing sense of confidence that God was inviting us to return to Ethiopia after my graduation. I felt called to take my training and participate in training a new generation of leaders who would bear witness to God’s love for suffering children and people living in oppression. This sense of vocation had been deeply formed by two Ethiopian children named Wude and Eyob. Wudenesh was an eight-year-old girl who walked with a cane and sold tissues in the street at night to support her impoverished family. Eyob was a thirteen-year-old-boy who had a terrible head wound and begged strangers to help him get medical care. I tell more of their stories in chapter four of my book Flourishing on the Edge of Faith.
But there was an obvious problem. Lily and I didn’t have any money. We didn’t even have a savings account because we didn’t have money to save. And the school in Addis that had offered me a job didn’t have the resources to offer me a salary. As you can imagine, this put us in an awkward, vulnerable, sometimes acutely anxious situation.
On the one hand, we had a clear sense that God had asked us to make this decision to serve in Ethiopia. But on the other hand, we didn’t know where the money would come from. We didn’t know if this decision would be possible or if we would fall on our faces. We also didn’t know how our community would respond: you don’t usually relocate to America, get an advanced degree, and return to Ethiopia to take a job that doesn’t pay a salary, offer benefits, or boost your resume.
But there was another, hidden factor involved in this decision: we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Back in 2016, we didn’t know that a terrible civil war was going to explode in Ethiopia. That death threats and fear and grief were coming. That our souls would be pierced with swords and we would become different people through this experience. We didn’t know that we would look back in dark times and question if we had lost our way.
This is why the question echoing in the Christmas story feels so personal and poignant to us: Has God ever asked you to make a decision that changed your life? Perhaps moments in your own story are coming to mind as I reflect on mine.
A life-changing decision is the hinge of the Advent season and the key turning point in God’s coming: God asked a rural, impoverished teenager named Mary to make a decision that would change her life forever.
And Mary said yes. Listen to Luke’s account of this crucial moment:
“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ Then the angel left her.” (Luke 1:26-38)
This decision — Mary’s yes to God’s invitation — is the way that God was born in our world and became Emmanuel, God-with-us. And this decision profoundly changed Mary’s life. Notice these five aspects of her courageous choice.
First, Mary was saying yes to something she couldn’t fully understand. How was this possible? To have a baby without sex? For a human being to carry “the Son of God”?
Mary was bold enough to express her bewilderment to the angel. She asked, “How will this be?” And all the angel said in reply was about God “coming” and “overshadowing” her.
This was highly mysterious — even scandalously mysterious — language. And yet Mary chose to say yes to God in her unknowing.
2. Loss of Control
Second, Mary was saying yes to something she couldn’t control. The decision she made required depending on God’s power and provision: to become pregnant without human sperm.
That’s something that everyone knows doesn’t happen, because it can’t. Mary couldn’t do this alone or make it happen on her own. And this put her in a position of pure vulnerability. What if this angel-announced God disappeared or didn’t come through? What if it was all an illusion, a hyperactive spiritual imagination, her own fantasy?
Mary chose to say yes to God and participate in something she couldn’t control.
3. A Changed Body
Third, and soon enough, saying yes changed Mary’s body. She would go through nine months of pregnancy. She would experience hunger, shifting hormones, weight gain, lost sleep, persistent nausea, and the anxiety of carrying a baby and not being sure of the result.
Mary’s decision was an embodied decision, lived and labored in her flesh. She allowed her life to be changed at the cellular level as she said yes to God being born through her.
4. An Altered Reputation
Fourth, and with a changing body, saying yes to God risked Mary’s reputation and her safety.
Mary lived in an extremely conservative religious community not entirely unlike the Taliban today. Recently, four men in Pakistan near the Afghan border killed a young woman. They did this at the instruction of village elders after a doctored image on social media simply showed her sitting with her boyfriend.
Mary’s community placed a very high value on traditional sexual norms. They saw these rules as essential for maintaining moral order and receiving God’s favor. Women who got pregnant outside of marriage were supposed to be stoned to death as an act of communal cleansing and public education: if you do this, you get this, Moses taught (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). “This” was a horrifyingly painful and shameful way to die. You were literally killed by the hands of your own family and friends who came out as a community to say that you no longer deserved to live.
Who would believe Mary when the baby in her belly started growing and she explained, “Oh, yes, the angel Gabriel visited me awhile back. And he said that God wanted me to carry God’s Child. And I said yes, so that’s why I’m pregnant, even though Joseph and I aren’t married yet. So there isn’t anything wrong here and you don’t need to stone me”? The truth is, almost no one would believe her then, and probably none of us would believe her now.
I have a fifteen year old niece, and I try to imagine how my family would respond if she got pregnant and told us Mary’s story about the angel, the miraculous conception, and how all of this was really the result of her saying yes to God. I’m about 99.9 percent sure we would think that she was either losing her grip on reality or that she was cynically using God to cover up her own decision, which would probably make my family even more angry with her.
There would be plenty of mysterious unknowing and loss of control if Mary said yes to God. But this would be absolutely certain: saying yes would radically change her body and also her reputation in her community. It would upend the way that every person she knew saw her, talked about her behind her back, and the way they looked at her and talked to her. And that would be the best-case scenario. As we’ve seen, “honor killing” wasn’t simply part of the culture. It a biblical law in Mary’s society.
So saying yes to God carried the serious risk of endangering her life. And still Mary said yes.
5. A Pierced Soul
Finally, saying yes to God required Mary to trust God with her own soul — with her unwritten story, with who she would become and who she would experience herself to be as a human person. This might be the most intimate, vulnerable aspect of Mary’s decision to say yes to God.
Think of the questions Mary must have asked herself in that split-second of divine invitation: “Who will this miraculous/‘illegitimate’ child become? What will his scandalous life stir up? How will all of this impact my life and my family?”
Mary knew that she lived in an occupied territory dominated by the Romans. Everyone had seen the bloody public spectacles with dead bodies hanging on crosses. Around the time of Jesus’s birth, the Romans had crucified 2,000 people not far from Mary’s village. The colonizers executed troublemakers as a lesson for everyone else to see and a warning not to step out of line.
Mary also knew that her society was intensely polarized about what to do about this military occupation and what role the Messiah might play in ending it. The subversive song she sang over her unborn child makes this clear (Luke 1:46-55). Most people wanted a militant messiah who would launch an armed revolt against the Romans, not entirely unlike what happened on October 7.
Mary couldn’t have been too surprised when an elder in the community named Simeon gave her a disturbing warning. He said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
Simeon’s language is haunting: A sword will pierce your soul. What does this mean? He was telling Mary, “You will feel stabbed in your core. Violated. Slashed in the most intimate center of your self. You are going to become a wounded person and permanently changed by saying yes to God.”
This is the language of trauma: something is going to happen to you that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life. Moreover, this wounding will happen in your soul, so many people won’t be able to see it or to understand it. And rather than that making the wound easier, this invisibility can make the wound even lonelier, more difficult, and overwhelming to carry. The person you love most and your own soul are at stake.
Mary’s Radical Faith
We might reimagine the angel’s invitation to Mary like this: “Mary, if you say yes to God, first, you won’t fully understand what’s happening to you: second, you won’t be in control; third, your body will change; fourth, your community will likely see you as a bad person and maybe even want to get rid you; and, fifth, a sword will pierce your soul too. This is going to change you and wound you. You’re not going to be who you were before this started. You might laugh less. You might cry more or have darker, more desperate thoughts. You might be tempted to miss the old days when things were simpler, easier, less painful, less complicated, less I-have-a-sword-wound-in-my-soul-and-few-people-understand-what-that’s-like-and-it’s-hard-to-live-with. Mary, will you say yes to God?”
And, astonishingly, Mary still said yes. Yes, beyond her understanding. Yes, beyond her ability to control. Yes, with her own body. Yes, at the risk of her reputation, her relationships, and her safety. Yes, even at the risk of her own soul.
Mary’s yes is how Jesus was born. Her faith is how God entered into our world like never before, for God is not a rapist who forces Godself on us. Mary had to consent, and she did: “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
As we celebrate Christmas once more, I have two intentions in mind for drawing our attention to Mary.
First, I want us to honor Mary not only as Jesus’s mother and so the mother of God in flesh. (Theologians call Mary Theotokos or the God-Bearer.) I want us to honor her as the person of tremendous faith that this decision required her to be. What astonishing risks she took. What an incalculable price she paid. Mary forever embodies the most profound, courageous participation with God in healing our world. Let us remember Mary, honor Mary, and embrace her as our teacher of faith.
Second, I want to ask us afresh the question that echoes in Mary’s story as we face a new year: Is God asking you to make a decision that might change your life? Or is God asking you to remain faithful to a decision that is already changing your life?
If you’re at all like me, maybe your understanding is stretching like Mary’s womb and you confess, “I don’t know how this is going to work.” Maybe your consciousness is nauseous as you lose control and you confess, “This seems totally impossible to me.” Maybe you feel your body changing, and you’re anxious about this new enfleshed vulnerability. Maybe some people’s opinions of you are shifting and not always for the better; you feel loss, distance, even threat where you once felt at home. Maybe you feel that sword slowly, painfully piercing into your soul and an inner voice cries out, “This is changing who I am at my core!”
I ask my self and each of us: Is there a decision God asking you to make that might change your life? Or is God asking you to remain faithful to a decision that is already changing your life?
Mary is our teacher of faith. With her life, she teaches us that we can trust God. The long labor of learning to say yes to God will change us. This birthing process will bring suffering. We may look back on our lives and not fully recognize who we’ve become. Part of us may miss those earlier days before we said yes — those days when we thought we knew more than we did, when we thought we were more in control than we really were, when our bodies were younger, when our reputations were less complicated and our soul felt less pierced. But the Savior, Emmanuel, God-with-us is being born in us and through us in this mysterious process. As the angel promised, “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).
I don’t know why God’s way is like this. We humans would love it if God would say, “I have a decision I’d like you to make. If you say yes, you’ll fully understand everything. You’ll be in control the whole time. Your body will be unchanged. Your community will understand and affirm you. And your soul won’t get hurt.” But it’s sometimes the opposite. Mary’s story shows this, and our stories may follow a similar pattern.
This Christmas, will we join Mary in saying yes to God? Will we echo her faith and confess, “Let it be to me according to your word”?
This is how God is born and enters into our world.
P.S. Five Christmas Articles
If you’re looking for more Christmas reading this weekend, here are five recommendations:
- Philip Jenkins, “The Year Jesus Was Born” explores what Jesus’s society was like when he was born. It was far more complex and violent than we often hear and much like Israel/Palestine today.
- “Christmas Message of the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem 2023” is a powerful summary of the Christmas story and how it speaks to our world today. Jerusalem’s Christian leaders say Jesus’s birth “denounces all violence and calls for its end.”
- Rev. Munther Isaac, “God Is Under the Rubble” gives a prophetic meditation on where Jesus would be found if he were born today.
- Laura French, “In Bethlehem, the Home of Jesus’s Birth” explores what life is like for Palestinian Christians today.
- Philip Yancey, “The Visited Planet” is a devotional meditation I reread every year with fresh appreciation.