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'A change is gonna come': Why a refugee and his revolutionary mother are symbols of hope

This piece was originally published by Newshub on the 22nd of December, 2022 in conjunction with XVox and the Christian Broadcasting Assocation.

Let's be honest, most of our Christmas Carols are terrible. At best, they're the equivalent of pub anthems for children. At their worst, they're lullabies made for soothing Uncle Gordon off to sleep after three helpings of ham and twice as many Heinekens.

And for those of us familiar with the refugee child this holiday celebrates, we might wonder what these sickly sweet melodies have to do with the details of the original narrative of Christ's birth.

Consider the key beats of the Christmas story. An occupied and oppressed people longing for a liberator. A woman whose pregnancy must be hidden to avoid capital punishment from a religious ruling class. A family who must flee their home in the middle of the night to avoid persecution.

These are not powerful people: this is a young refugee family from a religious minority fighting for their right to exist.

Somehow, in the midst of all of this, Jesus' mother Mary found a moment to put pen to paper and write a song. And this song is far removed from the saccharine fare most often played at Christmas in the Park. It's more akin to Rage Against the Machine, the Sex Pistols or NWA.

She talks about how the mighty will be "cast down from their thrones" and the hungry are about to be fed, but the rich have been "sent away empty". Mary isn't thinking about miracles or parables, she's thinking about a full-scale revolution. She's waging class warfare from the very depths of her womb.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at 39 after joining a plot to assassinate Hitler. He said this of the song Mary wrote: "It is the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung." When he heard Mary's song he didn't imagine a meek and mild teenage girl, he saw a fellow revolutionary – a comrade, even. He saw someone who ached in their bones for change to come.

Is It Worse Than It’s Ever Been?

The other week I was on holiday with my daughter and my parents. As I luxuriously kicked my feet through crystal-clear waters on a beach in Fiji I was interrupted by a familiar grief I've felt a lot recently: the longing for things to be different.

I thought of my own life: I've recently been throu

gh a painful separation.

I thought of my friends and family: miscarriages, financial hardship, mental health crises.

I thought of Aotearoa: the ongoing impacts of colonisation, the division COVID-19 revealed, political parties peddling outdated fear narratives.

I thought of the world: Ukraine, the thousands of migrant workers who died delivering us the entertainment of the FIFA World Cup, climate change and our global governments' failure to do much about it.

I turned and asked my 76-year-old father: "Is it worse than it's ever been?"

I was hoping he'd come back with some comforting wisdom from the ages. Instead, he replied: "I can't remember it being worse."

My God. That's bleak, isn't it?

I'm reminded of some words from the Apostle Paul. He said that the whole earth is in the pains of childbirth. We might say, "the womb of the world is in contractions". From crises that are deeply personal to those which are existential, I think many of us are weary and overwhelmed by three years of relentlessly bad news.The pain is powerful, the grief is grievous, the lament is deep, the mamae is unbearable.

And yet for those who have experienced or stood beside a loved one in labour, we know that contractions serve a purpose. They are the re-ordering of the body to deliver new life. Muscles need to move, organs need to relocate, tissue needs to expand and dilate. But this activity is not futile – it's for the purpose of giving birth to new life.

Perhaps it takes someone with a womb to truly understand revolution. Maybe, as Mary felt the contractions both within and without herself, she wrote a song about everything needing to move to make way for a new world of justice, peace, and equality.

Mary's protest song invites us to consider that the profound local and global re-orderings we face now could be more than vain sufferings, and might be the contractions preceding the new lives we're all longing for.

A Change Gon’ Come

There's another revolutionary I think Mary and Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have called 'comrade' – the American soul singer Sam Cooke. In 1964, after he and his band were turned away from a 'whites only' motel in Louisiana, he penned the song 'A Change is Gonna Come'. The song catalogues Cooke's experience of being a Black man in Civil Rights America: being born into poverty, moved on for loitering after seeing a movie, betrayed by someone he'd called a friend. But from the depths of his lament he writes this modern-day Psalm: "There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long; but now, I think I'm able to carry on. It's been a long, a long time coming; but I know a change gon' come – oh yes, it will."

This is the time of year for singing revolutionary songs. The kind that Mary, Dietrich and Sam wrote. It's the time for acknowledging that the hurt is sometimes just too much to bear. But maybe, just maybe, there is still hope for more peace, more justice and more freedom.

Because if new hope was birthed into the world through a teenage refugee girl in a society with everything against her, then perhaps it can come through you and me too. Perhaps our pain, be it personal or public, can be a womb for new life.

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