The University of Bristol Multifaith Chaplaincy is taking as its theme for the Christmas Carol service this year – it’s been growing; the attendance last year was in the hundreds – Mary.

Always the challenge is to make the Christian Christmas work in the context of a secular university. It’s a multifaith context as well. A huge number of Bristol’s students come from overseas, many with their own religious traditions. Fascinating that a secular and multifaith university wants a high profile Christian service!

Singing carols is, of course, essential, as is the telling of the story. This year, for the first time, one of the Muslim chaplains is taking part. Islam reveres Jesus every bit as much as does Christianity. It does not, of course, believe the same things about Jesus as Christianity does, but in Islam he is second only to Mohammed in veneration. It is not surprising (though entirely welcome) that Muslims should want to join in a celebration of Jesus’ birth. The Kuran includes the story of Gabriel announcing the birth to Mary; it is similar though different to the Christian version, but it still refers to the birth of Jesus as ‘good news’.

So to Mary. She’s important in the Christmas story, of course. But traditional Protestant portrayals of her (the willing ‘handmaiden’ of the Lord) tend to romanticise her somewhat. We may have, with good reason, moved away from Roman Catholic veneration of Mary but we have not, really, done much to replace all that stuff with a more helpful way of honouring Mary in our own faith.

Mary provides a ‘way in’ to the secular and multifaith world. Along with the shepherds, the ‘wise men’ socalled, Joseph, the innkeeper etc., she brings her common humanity into the midst of this most ‘otherworldly’ part of the story of Jesus. She is a poor girl from an outoftheway town who, we can imagine, must have been at the centre of a huge amount of rumour and gossip of the ‘no better than she should be’ variety. She is a teenage mother – scandalous enough, still, in our day.

The hardships of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth itself – these details get a hearing amongst many still whose lives are harsh. Later, her flight to Egypt puts her exactly in the middle of the experience of thousands today who are fleeing their home country and undertaking arduous journeys. And the pain of her experience of motherhood, summed up so well in the words of Simeon – “a sword will pierce your own heart also” – is a universal pain.

Plenty to go on, then. Though in the context of the Christmas story, there’s not that much material. Mary sits serenely at the centre of the usual nativity scene looking on at the veneration all around. She says nothing, does nothing, plays no further part in the proceedings; she “keeps all these things in her heart”, as the Bible puts it.

Down the centuries Mary has become a ‘type’ of the quiet, faithful – doesn’t speak out of turn, gets on with the housework, looks after the children. The very idea of the virgin birth comes from a world where female purity was all and in which the womb provided no more than a nest for the entirely male act of creation. Plenty of women around the world still live with the kind of oppression that grows out of such views – the shame of having female children, separation of the sexes and male prioritising, FGM, routine mistreatment of females under the law in many places.

A secular world may trumpet its commitment to sexual equality but has little power to shift the kinds of instinctive ideas that lead to this obvious injustice. A multifaith world has to work very hard not to reproduce such injustices under the guise of religious traditions, in Christianity, as much as Islam or Hinduism.

Yet, at the centre of the Christmas story (the ‘heartbeat of the whole Christian story’ you might say) is a woman. Mary is called by God, before Joseph hears anything. And although Zechariah hears about John the Baptist’s arrival before his wife, Elisabeth and Mary get a whole scene to themselves. Mary gets to sing her wonderful song (her ‘Magnificat’), filled with the ancient hope of the great reversal of God’s Kingdom.

Zechariah the man sings of John, the “greatest of those born of woman”; Mary the woman sings of Jesus, who comes to bring a new world, in which men and women are forever loved equally by God.

I write this before the university carol service has taken place. How it goes at this stage can’t be known. It won’t change the world, but maybe for those forty or so minutes, a secular and a multifaith world will get a glimpse of something that is easily missed.

The Christmas story doesn’t just make us feel warm and cosy in the middle of winter; it brings centre stage some of the challenges, joys and tragedies that are still part of the world we inhabit; bureaucratic government, refugees and asylum seeking, the plight of the poor.

Most of all it places a woman at the centre, and through her offers the good news of a Kingdom of justice and love to the whole world.

Michael Docker