Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.
The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.
Otherwise, the story has no meaning.
Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.
Artwork by He Qi
Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.
And yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.
Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.
I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.
And where, in all those stories, is love?
That is the right question to ask.
I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?
This is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.
She has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.
And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.
She descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”
You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.
May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.