At no point in my life has a stranger ever told me that I’d be so much more attractive if I just smiled more.
So when I first began hearing that women hear things like this and worse all the time, or that shows like “Mad Men” were not simply describing the way things way back in the Dark Ages, I simply did not believe it.
Sure, I was certainly raised with the expectation that I would be polite.
It mattered to be polite. Nothing wrong with that.
But the notion of going beyond politeness and conjuring up my own friendliness to please someone else at his request, to perform emotional labor for someone else’s anything, be it his whim or his full-blown agenda, was not expected of me.
Of course, it wasn’t. That was beneath the dignity of a man in the world I grew up in. Even a young man.
I don’t know I “learned” that – how it was I saw it – which is just to say: nobody ever explained any of that.
But learn it, I did. Saw it, I must have.
It was part of my understanding of what it was to be me.
I thought it was what life was like for everyone.
I don’t really know how my unlearning began.
Seeing those assumptions when you look in the mirror isn’t one of those Damascus Road kinds of things, where you’re blinded by the light and everything changes in an instant.
Even now, my unlearning, my turning from error and toward a fuller picture of the truth, is a work in progress.
Yet it is work that the Christmas story itself calls upon us to do.
This is a key theme in the story’s deep concern with Mary, the mother of Jesus.
We don’t know where Mary, the mother of Jesus, grew up.
If you look into it, you’ll see that people have wondered that since the early years of the church.
Some say Nazareth. Some say Jerusalem.
There are legends that Mary grew up in the Temple itself.
Others say she lived near it and was educated there.
In fact, an early church and pilgrimage site was built 400 feet from the Temple itself, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, purporting to be where her parents, Joachim and Anna, had lived and were buried.
Clearly, the Church has always wanted to affirm that there had to be some kind of sanctified backstory that the Gospels themselves did not include.
That must be true. What it was, we don’t know.
Yet there is this sense that Mary had already learned a great deal about who she was by the time she appears in the Gospel.
Was she a dutiful pleaser — the kind of kid who sat in the front row, got As for deportment and penmanship, memorized the proper answers quickly and got that school was mostly about sticking to those, whether you actually cared about the answers or not?
Or was she a wisenheimer — a kid who asked questions the teacher didn’t know how to answer, who sat with the out crowd, who laughed and was awkward, who wondered what life was?
We don’t know.
Either way, she turns from error to truth, and from social conventions about her place in the world to God’s disruptive role for her in the drama of salvation.
Whoever she was before, there would have been a lot of things she would have had to unlearn.
She does just that.
Around the time when older men in the neighborhood would have been trying to cajole her into smiling for them, when they were warmly or not-so-warmly calling her “kiddo” whenever she spoke up with ideas about things, something happened.
The unlearning clicked. The line was crossed.
Somewhere between heaven and her heart, something different and definitive intervened.
However it might have been before, now Mary was through with pleasing, fully ready to claim her dignity as a person.
The years of performing for any agenda other than God’s were over.
What are we supposed to make of her encounter with the Angel Gabriel?
I’m not sure the Church has ever given sufficient attention, much less appreciation, to the fact that God’s angel comes asking, not telling, and that the choice is very much Mary’s to make.
According to the story, she answers immediately.
To me, that still doesn’t mean that the choice is obvious.
There is plenty to weigh in choosing the path she does.
But she knows who she is.
Clearly, coming into her role in salvation history, she came into her own.
As Irenaeus of Lyons puts it, “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”
Part of what makes Mary so remarkable is that she’s not afraid to be just that: fully alive.
As Soren Kierkegaard observes: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
Whether it’s about what matters in this world, or about who she is, either way, Mary refuses to be fooled.
She will not be misled by anything that would deny her life in all its fullness.
And isn’t that the deeper point of Christmas, if we think about it?
Its rich imagery is trying to tell us that God, “the way, the truth, and the life” has become plain as day.
In the Christmas story, the counterweight to Mary is King Herod, who is fooled in both senses, not believing things that are true and convinced by things that aren’t, particularly about himself.
Maybe that’s an occupational hazard if you’re a king.
It’s a hazard for anyone.
Yet some are not fooled.
Mary is not, of course, but she’s not the only one.
Many of the other people around the manger are not fooled, either, be they holy family, shepherds, or magi.
Moreover, on this particular night of nights, in this particularly humble place, they realize that to pretend otherwise is simply beneath their dignity.
Now and forevermore, they know better.
I can’t say if someone ever told a shepherd or a wiseman that they really ought to smile more.
But in seeing Jesus, they come to recognize definitively that there is something broken in the world’s ways…something broken in so many of the things we are so told to do…something broken in so many of the things that we are told are true.
And they have decided that they are done for good with all of that.
They have unlearned a falsehood, and they’ve started to grasp for the truth.
It is the holiest of moments.
Similarly, whenever a person decides that for themselves again today, something of Christ is born anew.
Life in something more like fullness stretches out before them, and there’s a little bit of God’s glory that shines brighter, radiant like that star hanging in the sky over the manger.
The world is full of ideas about the lives we ought to lead.
There are things it wants us to notice and others it would just as soon we did not.
There are even truths about ourselves we are in danger of missing, and worlds waiting to be born that never will be, if we do not learn to see.
God would not have us be fooled.
God’s hope is that we will come to be fully alive – as Mary dared to be – unlearning falsehood and committing to truth, wherever it may take us.
This morning, we remember how it took Mary to a stable in Bethlehem.
The Gospel reminds us that took a lot to get there. It asked so much of her and so many others to get that far.
This morning we remember God led her to that stable not as a conclusion, but so that her story, and ours, might truly begin.
May it be according to that word.