I recently attended an intercultural competency training, where I was introduced to a new activity addressing stereotypes. Each participant was given two post-it notes -- one yellow and one green. We were asked to think about a part of our cultural make-up (race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, etc.) and write a label describing that part of us at the top of the post-it notes. I wrote down: "young woman." On the yellow post-it, we were to write down three stereotypes about the label. And on the green post-it, we were to write down three characteristics about ourselves that were true.
For the stereotypes of "young woman", I wrote: "immature, "shallow" and "sexually available." For the three truths about myself, I wrote: "professional," "mature" and "competent." We were asked to stick the yellow "stereotypes" post-it to our right shoulder, and the green "truths" post-it to our left shoulder, and walk around in silence, reading everyone else's post-its.
It was a really meaningful experience to share with my colleagues some of the stereotypes that most hurt me. And then to read the ones that are most harmful to them as "black woman," "white man" and "West Indian accent" (the only negative to the exercise was that I accidentally switched my post-its, and I got a lot of funny looks from my colleagues as they slowly realized that the truths I wanted to express to them about myself were not that I was: "immature," "shallow" and "sexually available").
I used to have coffee with another young clergywoman, and the two of us would talk a lot about what it's like to take on this priestly role as young women. We talked about the experience of telling each new person we meet that we are pastors, and the inevitable disbelief in their faces and voices that followed. We talked about how exhausting it is to always feel the pressure to break through peoples' assumptions and stereotypes about young women -- and to break through peoples' assumptions and stereotypes about pastors -- so that we can just be who we are called to be. And when we would get on this subject, my friend would say, over and over again: "God likes disguises; God likes disguises."
In the coming weeks, we will see many disguises, as the people with whom we usually share pews are turned into magi, shepherds and angels from on high, in Christmas pageants all over the world. But, of course, these pageants are just a sign of the greatest disguises God ever pulled off. One of those was a young woman. If Mary of Nazareth had been at my intercultural competency training, she might have written on her post-its the label: "pregnant teenage girl".
I remember when I was about Mary's age, during late middle school and early high school. I remember the rumors about our classmates' pregnancies. There was Diane*, the track star, who was going to take our high school to the state championship, and then get a college scholarship. Diane, who disappeared from the classroom and the track in ninth grade. They say she got pregnant, and we never saw her again. I remember Jessie, who hung out with the band and theater crowd like I did. Jessie, rumor told me years later, had several abortions in high school. I remember Gloria, a beloved teacher's daughter, with her gorgeous voice and Broadway dreams. Gloria, a Southern Baptist, who got pregnant junior year and married the baby's father at 17. I remember these girls, these Marys of my high school.
And I remember the way we looked at them, what we thought of them. The judgment. The shame. I remember it.
Mary of Nazareth, "pregnant teenage girl," was the last person you would expect to end up as a statue in every church and home at Christmas time. She was the last person you would expect to have churches and schools and shrines dedicated to. Mary was from the wrong side of Palestine. Nazareth was a place no one cared about. In the words of one of Jesus' own disciples: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" She was a woman in a society where women had little power, and becoming pregnant without the help of your husband was a death sentence in her time.
But it is this pregnant teenager from a bad neighborhood who, this season, will hold God inside of her body. It is this pregnant teenager from a bad neighborhood who is, for nine months, the only creature on earth to be physically touching the incarnate body of our Lord. And it is this pregnant teenager from a bad neighborhood who, in a few days, will be the first priest to hold the body of Christ in front of her and say: "This is my body, and this is my blood."
God loves disguises. So look around you today. And be a bit more curious about the characters that inhabit your life.
*All names have been changed.