When Pope Francis was elected, I remember watching the news as they reported on the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s square to greet him for the first time. With characteristically absurd bias, the reporter had somehow managed to find one of the few radical women in the crowd, who told the cameras that she had come to protest that the new pope “respect women and women’s rights,” and that she really hoped he would (of course) allow women priests.
As this somewhat ironic interview highlighted, one of the most common complaints against orthodox Christianity in modern times is the ringing, serious accusation of misogyny. “Patriarchal,” women-hating old men in traditional Christianity, I am told, want to control women and so make up misogynistic, repressive rules that are designed to keep only men in power.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and showing often better than telling. When I encounter angry accusations like this, there are a thousand logical, historical, or theological arguments that I could use to counter them. But on a more immediate level, my gut reaction to these accusations is to point with confidence to an image, a picture—to point to the figures at the center of the Christmas crèche. . . .
There are three figures we follow in intense expectation this month: Joseph, the blessed Virgin Mary, and the divine Child in her womb. In a direct and special way, without Mary, there is no Christmas. It is her loving expectation, her difficult journey with Joseph, their prayerful anticipation of the coming of God Himself in the form of a tiny child, that we follow throughout this season leading up to Christmas.
In G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, he describes a situation when some members of his childhood church complained about a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus:
When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. . . . The practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. . . . We must admit . . . that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.
This image is really shocking, because it hits home at a reality so obvious that it is all too easy to forget it. You cannot take away the Mother from around the figure of the Child. Without Mary, there is no Christmas; there is no way to remove womanhood from its place in the center of Christmas. In Christian feasting at Christmas, Mary is placed so high that there is hardly a carol or prayer that does not mention her. And rightly so—because Mary’s femininity, her heroic fortitude, self-sacrifice, and passionate, determined devotion to the will of God, is the prototype of womanhood that orthodox Christianity holds in deep, reverent esteem throughout the ages.
It could be, indeed, that it is precisely because Mary is so strikingly feminine that some more radical feminists would not want to see this image in the Christmas crèche as I do; that she embodies real feminine strength of character, but they wish to see such feminine strength only when it is “liberated” from the gift of feminine fertility—which some feminists think is not a gift but a problem to be cured with a pill. But be that as it may, the reality is still there: womanhood cannot be “repressed” out of the picture of Christmas—Christianity’s origin story. This Christmas, God is a child who refuses to leave the arms of his mother.