In any sort of drama production lighting is important, with the spotlight falling on the important characters and everybody else hidden in the shadows. Modern life is a little bit like that. Some people are never out of the spotlight while others feel that they are permanently hidden in the shadows.
The idea of being stuck in the shadows came to mind when I was thinking about the three women involved in the story of Jesus' birth; not just Mary, but also Elizabeth and Anna. Luke – that most gender-inclusive of the Gospel writers – tells us about them in the first two chapters of his Gospel. For all their differences, they each knew something of being in the shadows.
Let's begin with Mary and how insignificant she seems to be. It's worth remembering that in these nativity stories we are still in the world of the Old Testament where almost everybody who appears in the Bible comes complete with a reference to their father and tribe. Background counts. Yet no Gospel writer tells us anything about Mary's family.
Some measure of her insignificance is that she is defined not by who she is, but by who her fiancé is: Joseph, 'a descendant of David'. All we learn is that Mary is a young girl of marriageable age who lives in Nazareth, a village so undistinguished that it goes unmentioned in the Old Testament, and which is situated in a region so distant from Jerusalem and so much on the edge of the Jewish faith that it is referred to as 'Galilee of the Gentiles'. In fact, Isaiah 9:2 (echoed in Matthew 4:16) speaks of those who live in this area as 'the people living in darkness' and 'those living in the land of the shadow of death'.
So, in human terms, Mary is someone in the shadows: a no-one from nowhere. And yet. She has 'found the Lord's favour' and, in her breathtaking encounter with Gabriel, reverently accepts the awesome burden of being mother of the Messiah.
There are few finer words in the Bible than her courageous words of acceptance: 'I am the Lord's servant ... may your word to me be fulfilled' (Luke 1:38). Mary grew up under a shadow and she had nothing of what the world finds notable: fame or family. But what she had was faith and obedience, and that was enough for God.
Elizabeth is a woman who is elderly – important in a culture that values years over youth, is married to a priest, lives in what could be considered to be the 'Bible Belt' around Jerusalem, and comes from a priestly line herself. Furthermore, she is completely 'righteous' and 'blameless'. Yet a shadow has fallen over her life. Elizabeth is childless, something that in this society has overshadowed her significance and status to the point at which she feels shame.
In the theology of the Old Testament, children are one of God's great blessings to the godly and their absence was doubtless interpreted by the thoughtless and heartless as suggesting unworthiness. (This is nonsense of course. It is fascinating that the New Testament perspective on children is very different. There is no emphasis on biological families and children. If the Old Testament mandate was 'be fruitful and multiply', that of the New Testament is 'go and make disciples': spiritual children now seem to be more important than physical ones.)
Yet when Mary visits from Nazareth, Elizabeth, filled by the Holy Spirit, recognises that her young relative is not only pregnant but someone who is, astonishingly, 'the mother of my Lord' (Luke 1:43). God has given Elizabeth the gift of discernment and prophecy, and allowed her the privilege of being the first person to recognise that Jesus is indeed 'the Lord'. God took Elizabeth from out of her shadows and used her.
And what of Anna? She is a prophet who, with Simeon, greets the newborn Jesus as he is presented at the temple. Anna is not just old but very old. To be a widow then was not just to be bereaved but to be vulnerable, and Anna had been widowed for decades. Nevertheless, despite living under the shadow of age and isolation, Anna is deeply committed to God to the extent that she is now a permanent resident in the temple, worshipping, fasting and praying.
Now, in her last years, she meets the infant Jesus and she thanks God and then goes around speaking about the infant 'to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem' (Luke 2:38). God has rewarded Anna's faith, obedience and expectancy so that beneath the massive walls of the great temple, this old, frail widow is able to speak prophetically of the one who will fulfil all that the temple is and, indeed, will replace it. She is now not just a prophet but an evangelist.
I suggest three linked and important lessons from this. The first is that God cares nothing for those things the world delights in: power, status, background. The second is that whatever shadow we feel we are hidden in, God sees us for who we really are.
And finally, and blessedly, it seems that God actually prefers to use people who are in the shadows. After all, being in the shadows is a humbling thing and as Mary herself sang in what we call 'the Magnificat', 'He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble' (Luke 1:52).
If you are in the shadows this Christmas, may you seek God in Christ, be found by him and let yourself be used by him. And if you're in the light? Well, the same rule applies.
Grace, Joy and Peace this Christmastime.
Rev Canon J John is an evangelist and the director of the Philo Trust. Find him online at www.canonjjohn.com