Let's not make the Nativity too cosy: Mary's story is dark and brutal

Who is the greatest worldwide female celebrity at this time of year? Who has the greatest global reach, taking into account all messaging, what advertisers call OTS (opportunities to see), taking in digital social media as well as analogue print images?

If such big data exists, I rather fancy that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Rihanna – even hardy annuals such as Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie – would have to take a bow to a simple teenager from the Judea of a couple of thousand of years ago, about whom we know relatively little, because she never enjoyed the publicity benefits of an Instagram account.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, makes exactly how many appearances around the world over the next couple of weeks? On Christmas cards sent with love, on family mantelpieces and strings across kitchens? In street crib scenes and shop windows? In digital Christmas greetings across the internet? Millions? Hundreds of millions?

Google Cultural Institute/WikipediaThe Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510).

She will sometimes be abstract, sometimes Renaissance, sometimes modern and sometimes in cartoon form. She will always be demure, beautiful, humble. She will invariably be dressed comfortably in blue, tending her infant son.

And her celebrity status won't just be enjoyed by the faithful – ardent secularists, even atheists, will join her at the manger. A lovely, brave young girl, giving birth under difficult circumstances to a baby, whom even unbelievers would agree is going to change the world forever. What's not to like?

Nothing really. It's one of the wonders of Christmas that this event unites all humankind. Those of the Christian faith, but also those of other faiths and of none. Potentially, the whole world. In other words, all sinners.

But we're also entitled to wonder if we do Mary a disservice in our representation of her. When we examine the Nativity narrative in the gospels, it's far from cosy. It's brutal and dark. Among the literary themes we can note are oppression, displacement, antisemitism, infanticide and misogyny.

We don't have to be the Grinch to acknowledge just how tough and brave she had to be in helping to give the greatest gift to human history that, arguably, has ever been given.

We can argue too about the historicity of some of the events – whether there was a census under Quirinius that required all Jews to return to their place of birth or whether Herod ordered a massacre of the first-born in Bethlehem. But these were the kind of casual oppressions and routine atrocities that were common under the Roman jackboot.

The cruelty wasn't confined to the Romans. While it's a regular staple of New Testament scholarship to question the provenance of the stable and the inn, it remains entirely plausible that a young woman giving birth out of wedlock would have been shunned by respectable Hebraic society and been required to give birth on the lower floor of domestic accommodation, among livestock.

Again, those of us of a Christian faith can only wonder at a God who chooses to join us at the lowest of low human experience. But it all raises questions also about how we can or should tell the Nativity story.

Along with countless other churches, we will have a crib service on Christmas Eve and once again the children will place the figures of the holy family, plus the animals and the shepherds, in the stable. It's a magical (and holy) time that we may remember from our own childhoods and it's a wonderful introduction to the Christian story.

But as Paul told the church at Corinth, when we grow up we put aside childish things. So, on Christmas night, any adult might also take a moment in the darkness to remember a terrified young woman, in fear for her and her baby's life, alone but for her devoted husband-to-be and some shepherds, among the filth and squalor of the animals' quarters.

And, to help us understand and to inhabit Mary's experience, what would that look like today? Christian Today's Mark Woods has addressed this issue in the context of the controversy in the Italian town of Castenaso over the local crib scene being placed in the dangerous rubber dinghy of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. What strikes me about that is that it invites us to imagine what it felt like to be Mary, rather than what happened historically to her.

It reminds me of an art installation that appeared in St James's Church in Piccadilly, in London. An inflatable dinghy (one that had actually made those perilous crossings) hanging upside down from the church's ceiling, with life-jackets tumbling from it, as if bodies were falling into the depths of the nave.

That struck me as a powerful image that called us to serve the least of those around us. And it shamelessly demanded of us to examine who the desperate and the dispossessed of today are, rather than simply to view through history their equivalents among whom Jesus moved.

It means retelling scriptural stories for our own time. I've had a go at this myself, with a novel called A Dark Nativity, published at the start of Advent. It tells of a young woman, who is a priest and a former aid worker, who has witnessed some of the worst that the world has to offer in famine zones. So she is a holy, but broken, woman. There is a sort of Nativity here, but it is hard-won.

I started by trying to lift the scriptural Nativity narrative into the world of today. But that proved unsatisfactory. It quickly became just a tick-box exercise: Here is a stable, here is a star, there are three wise men.

My narrator, Natalie Cross (see what I did there!), is emphatically not Mary. She is damaged and sinful. But she is trying to make the best fist of her faith that she can in the world. So she is like many of us, if not all of us.

I'm hoping that there is also something redemptive and salvific in what is otherwise a very dark story. It's for others to judge whether I have succeeded at all. But if it's a contribution to the retelling of the Nativity in our own time, if it raises questions about how bleak and dark were the origins of our God's work in the world, then that will be of some comfort.

In a tiny way, too, I hope it might touch occasionally on how it felt to be Mary, all those centuries ago. So I hope she would approve too.

George Pitcher is a priest in the Church of England. His first novel, A Dark Nativity, is published by Unbound.