Reading the Bible primarily as a pattern or blueprint for our life can lead to some dangerous theological misunderstandings and misinterpretations, not to mention that we may easily miss the beauty of Scripture itself. However, all the authors of the Bible certainly make use of distinct literary patterns. One of these patterns is the repetition of role reversals.
One of the most striking is God’s response to patriarchal systems in the ancient world. Although twins, the younger Jacob is God’s chosen recipient of promised blessings, and not the first-born Esau. It is through Jacob, renamed Israel, that God chooses to bless a nation, then the world. God demonstrates his wisdom and freedom in how he acts beyond human sensibilities. Later, Ephraim inherits a greater portion than the older Manasseh. The younger will serve the older. David is anointed as king before seven older brothers. The meek will inherit the earth. The humble are exalted. Not because God is contrary, fickle, or unjust, but because he is just.
God sees our tendencies toward abusive power and domination, and works to correct them and undo them. He accomplishes this in ways that, if we have eyes to see, command our astonishment.
From the first pages of Scripture, however, we read of the “second-born” Eve being extracted from the side of Adam, the first created in the image of God. In this version of the created order,* if we follow this biblical pattern, we might expect Eve to become the chosen of God, while Adam serves. But, no, they are co-workers, tending the garden, friends with God. This justice and solidarity in all relationships is what God is patiently working out in us.
During Advent, as we contemplate the Christ’s arrival, we wait with Mary and Joseph. What is striking about Gabriel’s visitation is that Mary, not Joseph, receives a vocation. Certainly Mary’s humility and willingness to trust YHWH is the avenue through which Jesus is born.
But Matthew clarifies Isaiah’s ambiguous noun, “a virgin shall give birth” (Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14). Of all the ridiculous things! This is God’s work, not from human passion or decision, and unequivocally not a man’s decision.
“Here am I. Send me,” says Isaiah.
“Here am I. Let it be,” says Mary.
The Spirit overshadows Mary, and without the presence or participation of any man, she gives birth to God-with-us. Mary birthed the Savior of the world without male initiative.
In the events leading up to the first Christmas, men are secondary, sometimes quiet, submissive, silently obedient. Joseph wordlessly submits to God in a dream. Sometimes, they have been stripped of their voice, like Zechariah, who must learn from the Lord how to be silent and let others speak.
Eve, the mother of all, and Elizabeth, the mother of the Advent forerunner John the Baptist, choose their words carefully. “Look what the Lord has done. With God’s help we have produced a son!” While the Spirit’s same work has removed Elizabeth’s disgrace of barrenness, Mary’s disrepute blooms from her supernatural fertility. The women believe, trust, and are given a prophetic voice. Mary and Elizabeth laugh, open their mouths in astonishment, and join in communal dissent. They call out oppressive regimes and decry injustice against the poor with proleptic boldness.
And so, from the beginning of the Christmas story, we see the pattern of God’s role reversals in the calling of Mary and Joseph. It is Mary who carries God into embodied flesh. It is a woman, no, a young woman, barely more than a girl who, with God’s help, produces the salvation of us all.
And so, from the very beginning, the kingdom of God takes us by surprise, turning things upside down, inverting our understanding of who and what this season of Advent and Christmastide are all about.
Behold, the kingdom of God is upon us. (Luke 17:21)
*Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 offer parallel accounts with slightly different chronologies and emphases. The first, man and woman seem to be created simultaneously. The second, woman is pulled from man’s ribs as he sleeps.