I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, my family didn’t start attending church until I was a freshman in high school. As a result, my exposure to the Christmas story was limited to what I saw in paintings, statues and holiday stamps. I’d seen many pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, but these images always struck me as a bit odd and otherworldly. Here was Mary, this mature, peaceful woman in immaculate robes, holding a very adult-looking Jesus with a tiny, restrained half-smile on her lips—like the Mona Lisa dressed in religious garb. These pictures shaped my view of Mary as someone wholly unrelateable and distant, an obscure figure only revered in Catholic circles with very little relevance to me, a young, evangelical Protestant.
But then, several years ago, I encountered a very different kind of painting. It was an image created by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi entitled Dalit Madonna. In it, Sahi depicts the Virgin Mary as a dalit, cradling the baby Jesus, with deep love and affection in her eyes as she looks down upon her infant child. Her hands and feet are dirty and calloused. And yet, the love this mother shows for her baby envelops her and the child in warm light. I was immediately taken by the beauty of this painting and the touching intimacy it depicts.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term dalit, it referes to a group of people in India more commonly known as “untouchables.” Some Westerners have mistakenly called the dalits the lowest caste in Hinduism. However, this is an inaccurate assessment, for the dalits have traditionally been viewed as living outside the proper caste system. They serve in labor industries deemed too defiled or unclean to be attended to by proper Hindus.
Fortunately, there have been many movements within India to eradicate this discrimination, including efforts by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great friend and advocate of many untouchables. However, dalits are still looked down upon in more rural settings, and social stigma continues to be attached to the term.
As I reflected more on Sahi’s painting, I could not help but think what it would have been like for the historical Mary, giving birth to her son in first-century Judea. In the Bible, we read that Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel before her official marriage to Joseph and told she would bear a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High.” What’s more, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).
On the one hand, this was the most exciting news Mary could have heard. After all, the Messiah was believed to be the heir to the throne of David, the greatest king in the history of the Israel. Many of the Israelites in Mary’s day, living under Roman occupation, hoped the Messiah would come and free them from the political oppression of foreign rulers and usher in an era of prosperity and peace. No doubt, Mary believed much the same thing and desired to see a day of freedom for her people.
However, Mary also knew that to accept the angel’s message was to accept a social stigma. You see, she was already betrothed to Joseph. This meant that they were legally husband and wife with the exception of sexual relations. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well aware the child to be born was not his (see Matthew 1:18-19). As such, Mary would have been labeled an adulterer. As some people are labeled dalits in certain parts of the world, so Mary would have been labeled sotah, the ancient Hebrew word for “adulteress.”
In his book The Real Mary, Scot McKnight writes about the dangers Mary would have faced as a woman with an illegitimate child. He reminds us that, if she were openly accused of adultery by Joseph, Mary would have faced death by stoning. Yet even if Joseph did not bring charges against her, she would have been stripped half-naked and forced to stand in the center of her village to endure the verbal ridicule and scorn of her neighbors and former friends. Likewise, Mary would have known what would be at stake for her child.
McKnight highlights the realities Mary would have faced:
“She knew villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child and he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question … She knew that he was legally required to divorce her. And one more connection for Mary was that he could leave her stranded with the Messiah-to-be without a father.”
All of this is affirmed by the biblical text. Christ, at one point, is mocked as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), a clear reference to His lack of a legitimate father.
Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Like the dalits of India, she would become an outcast, an untouchable, one whom people would regard as disobedient to God and a traitor to the acceptable standards of behavior set out in “proper” society. However, not to receive this message would have been to turn away an invitation from God to participate in His plans for the world. What would she choose?
“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word'” (Luke 1:38).
Mary chose to obey God. In the face of certain rejection and a difficult life ahead for her and her child, Mary knew God and knew He would provide for them. Furthermore, she was faithful because of what was at stake. Though she could not anticipate just what kind of life Jesus would lead, she knew the Messiah would bring the salvation promised by God. She desired, more than anything, to see this salvation brought into the world and was full of faith that God would act through Him to that end.
As we approach the Christmas holiday, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.
I also see in this story an invitation to re-examine how we approach the untouchables in our midst. The truth of Mary’s story is that God often works through the outcasts and the marginalized. And yet, as Christians, we often miss this.
Whether we face rejection for following Christ or are seeking to care for the outcast and unseen in our midst, it is important to remember Mary’s story: the story of her faithfulness, the story of God’s untouchable servant.