It’s a strange world we’ve created for ourselves. The culture of celebrity has become something larger and more influential than we could ever have predicted a few decades ago – and it has filtered through every aspect of our lives. It is almost impossible to avoid the tyranny of it. Musicians, authors, artists and actors now live with the dread that they will never get the “big break” which will validate their art and give them the right to identify themselves as creative. Leaders live with the constant pressure to outdo previous achievements, break records, leave a lasting historic legacy. Unless we have caught the attention of the entire globe, it seems, we have little value to offer, and our lives do not count for much.
Even in the Church this dynamic works its influence. In thirty years of following Christ I have heard many personal prophecies given to people, but never have I heard one in which God told an individual that they would do ordinary things. I have never heard a prophecy in which God called someone to be a faithful mother, or a committed worker, or a good son. It’s always “great things” that are to be done, and “nations” that are to be influenced.
But, this culture is slowly destroying us. On the one hand, the culture of the extraordinary creates expectations that are pretty impossible for anyone to meet – even those who are genuinely extraordinary. As Dr. Lyndon Duke – a specialist on teen suicide – wrote, after analysing the notes left by teens who have taken their own lives:
When everyone is trying to be exceptional, nearly everyone fails because the exceptional becomes commonplace, and those few who do succeed feel isolated and estranged from their peers. We’re left with a world in which a few people feel envied, misunderstood and alone, while thousands of others feel like failures for not being good, special, rich or happy enough.
On the other hand, when big issues need to be addressed – like the economic crisis, climate change, world poverty, AIDS, war and terrorism – the cult of the extraordinary becomes an easy way for us to let ourselves off the hook. If we’re not “special” we don’t have to worry about these big challenges, because we’re not the “chosen ones” who must address them.
There are few places where our addiction to the extraordinary manifests more than in the Christmas story. It’s no wonder that Christmas has been co-opted by the forces of materialism and consumerism. It’s no wonder that we get so caught up in meaningless arguments about insignificant details and unimportant labels (is it a “Christmas tree” or a “Holiday tree”?). If Christmas is about a Special Baby being born to a Special Woman, then we are nothing more than passive observers of God’s supernatural activity, required to do nothing more than receive. Salvation is done to us. God’s Reign comes to us. And, in our passivity, we can find nothing more meaningful to do than fight for the small traditions and personal preferences that make us feel more open to God.
But Christmas is not about extraordinariness. On the contrary if it is about anything, it’s about the power of the ordinary to effect God’s purposes. Mary was not chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was special. She was chosen because she was the epitome of ordinary. A young girl of marriageable age, living an ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary country. There were probably hundreds of other girls who could easily have taken Mary’s place. The fact that God chose her probably had more to do with factors beyond her control – being engaged to a descendant of David, having relatives who were old and barren and of a priestly family – than with any special qualities that she possessed.
This ordinariness is, however, what makes the Christmas story so extraordinary. How could a commoner like this give birth to a child that would be both the fulfillment of God’s promise of an eternal dynasty to David, and God’s Son? How could the child that fulfilled these promises be born into such ordinary circumstances, grow up under such ordinary parents, and do such ordinary work (carpentry)? The answer, I believe is simply this: God’s Reign does not come through extraordinary people. God’s Reign stands or falls on ordinary people embracing it and living it out in their daily lives. The very essence of God’s Reign is that it infiltrates the smallest, most ordinary parts of the world, the tiniest details of our lives. In the same way that it is usually the ordinary people who shift the course of history, more than the generals and leaders and heroes who are remembered, it is the ordinary people who bring God’s Reign into being in the world.
In an important sense, even the child that Mary gave birth to was ordinary. As Isaiah’s prophecy states:
“There was nothing beautiful or majestic about His appearance, nothing to attract us to Him.” (Isaiah 53:2 NLT).
In fact, in many ways, the Child was not the significant thing that Mary brought into the world. What was significant about both her and Jesus was the Reign of God that was birthed through them. This is why Mary’s song (the Magnificat, as it is called) does not refer to the Child at all. Rather, it praises God for the justice and grace, the love and peace that God is bringing into the world through her (See Luke 1:46-55). None of this is intended to deny the unique nature and mission of Jesus. It is simply a challenge for us to recognise that if Jesus’ incarnation was an extraordinary thing that was done to humanity, it has little impact on our lives now. If Jesus came as some sort of superhero swooping in to save us, then he would have had no need to call anyone to follow him. The Gospels are nothing if not a call to ordinary people to embrace the Reign of God that was manifest in Jesus’ life and to live it out as Jesus did in lives of compassion, grace, love and sacrifice. Certainly, Jesus seemed to hold the belief that what he did was just as doable by the ordinary folk that followed him (See John 14:12).
What this means is that Mary was not a unique human being who was uniquely chosen, and who we must simply watch and celebrate. No, Mary is all of us – ordinary, loved and called. We are all visited by God. We are all overshadowed by God’s Spirit. We are all parents of God’s Reign. Which means that it is time to stop using our addiction to the extraordinary to let ourselves off the hook. It is time for us all to accept the “calledness” of our ordinariness, and begin to give birth to God’s Reign in our own small way. It is time for us all to choose, daily, to bring Christ and the Reign of God that Christ revealed, into our world.
Whenever we reject the broken values of human Empire, and begin to use our wealth, however small, in ways that foster simplicity, generosity and humility, we give birth to God’s Reign. Whenever we make the choice to stop waiting for governments and leaders to fix things and we begin to act in new, restorative ways, we give birth to the Reign of God. This week COP 17 made a decision to postpone any significant action with regard to climate change until 2020. Clearly, the “extraordinary people” aren’t ready to change things. It’s up to the ordinary folk who will work hard at reducing their own carbon footprints to make the difference – and that doesn’t have to wait another day. Whenever we refuse to perpetuate violence in our own lives and homes, we give birth to God’s Reign. Whenever we, like Mary, declare that we are slaves to God’s purposes, we have become those who give birth to God’s grace, love, justice, peace and compassion.
Mary was not extraordinary. Neither are we. But, it is not the extraordinary people that God needs. The Christmas story is filled with ordinary people who recognised what God was doing and joined the movement. If we will count ourselves among them, God’s Reign will be manifest that little bit more in our world – and all of those little bits will add up to a truly extraordinary change.