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Christmas is the story of Mary, a young unwedded mother, giving birth to a refugee child, Jesus, in a sheep shed. The central male character in this story is Joseph, Mary’s fiancée / boyfriend, who supports her decision to give birth to a child that he is not the biological father of. This childbirth has become famous and remembered for more than 2000 years. But it is rather unfortunate that some of those who enact this event faithfully and worship Jesus, Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be sensitive to children born in similar circumstances today (refugee children) to parents like Mary and Joseph (unwedded, poor workers).

According to Christian belief, God appears to have consciously chosen an unwedded woman whose fiancée / boyfriend was a carpenter, to give birth to “King / Savior” Jesus, in a sheep shed.

Recent discussions I had with some female colleagues and friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have led me to reflect more on another aspect of the Christmas story. A mother’s consent to give birth.

Christian belief is that Mary conceived Jesus through an intervention of the God / Holy Spirit. According to the biblical narrative of Luke, God had chosen Mary as the woman to give birth to Jesus, and sent a representative, an angel named Gabriel, to discuss the matter with Mary. The biblical text reveals Mary to have been shocked when Gabriel says that she will be conceived with a child. She had asked Gabriel “how can this be when I’m a virgin”? Gabriel appears to have been patient and had given additional information and explanations. After this, Mary had given clear, verbal consent to the conception, pregnancy and birth that was to follow.

The many biblical narratives that slightly differ from each other, seem to concur in indicating that conception was something that was to happen after Mary’s consent, and not something that had already happened before her consent[1]. That Mary was free to accept or not accept the conception. The intermission till Mary responded has been described as a time the “angels await her answer with bated breath”. This is also captured by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting…. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent.”

The biblical narrative gives central place to woman’s consent (Mary’s) and not to men. God appears to have recognized that it is the women’s life that would be radically affected by having to conceive, bear the child through pregnancy and giving birth. There is no consultation or discussion with High Priests of the time. Or even with Joseph, the main man in the story. In today’s Christmas day homily in my parish, reference was made to Joseph thinking of “dumping” Mary after he came to know of her decision to bear a child that was not his, but that after some reflection, he had decided to continue the relationship and be part of bringing up the child with the mother.

Perhaps of academic interest to the Christmas story, but of much importance for society today, especially women, would be the question what if Mary declined? Would a God of love and justice that Christians believe in, forced Mary to conceive a child against her wishes?

Christian belief is that God has offered much to humankind, including unconditional freedom and choice. Christmas, Jesus’s birth as a human child, is a central event in the Christian story of salvation. Central to this story of Christmas is a loving, respectful and non-patriarchal God recognizing the bodily autonomy of a young unwedded woman to bear a child, and centrality of her unconditional consent.


[1] None of the biblical versions appear to use the word “you have conceived”, but use instead, words such as you will / shalt conceive, you will become pregnant etc.