“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Luke 2:9
Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I order a lot of books online. I often order used books because you can find inexpensive copies that are still in great condition. One thing about used books is that they sometimes arrive with hints of their former life – an inscription in the front or a note scribbled in the margins. Last week I received a used copy of a poetry collection that I had ordered a long time ago. It had traveled all the way from a used bookstore in England, and inside the front cover I found, of all things, a Christmas card. It does not include the recipient’s name. There’s not even a date on the card. Only this note – “This has been such a sad year – may the next one bring more joy, peace and light breaking through. Much love, the Meeths.”
I wish I knew more of the story. I wonder what made it such a sad year for this person. I wonder how the card ended up in the pages of the book or how the book found its way to the bookstore. I won’t ever know the answers to those questions.
But I do know this. The card captures something that we all recognize as true. Our lives contain many experiences and emotions, with joy and sorrow intertwined like the red and white ribbons of a candy cane. There’s so much that we can neither predict nor control, which can bring us delightful surprises or keep us awake at 2:00 in the morning.
Consider for a moment the characters in our Christmas story. The Emperor thinks he’s in control of everything, not realizing that by requiring Joseph to come to Bethlehem for the registration, the Emperor is actually helping to fulfill the prophecy that the messiah would be born in this city of David. Most of us, like the Emperor, have far less control than we think.
Joseph, meanwhile, is trying to do what God has told him in a dream he must do – stay with Mary and care for this child who will save the people from their sins. I can’t imagine what Joseph must be feeling as they enter Bethlehem. Panic? Resolve? An occasional flicker of doubt about where this baby came from? Still, he finds the shelter. He watches over Mary and the baby. Whatever doubts he might possess, he acts in spite of them.
Mary has given herself over to God’s purpose many months before tonight’s events, but I bet she never imagined she’d be placing her newborn in a food trough for the animals. And that’s before all of these other strange people started showing up. No wonder she had a lot to ponder. Sometimes all we can do when we are overwhelmed is to pause and reflect on the divine mystery of it all.
I often think the shepherds come the closest to our own experience. They’re going about their lives, showing up for their jobs and tending to their responsibilities. Into that routine existence, in the midst of another long and boring night, an angel appears with the news of a holy birth. And before they’ve even caught their breath, there’s a sky full of angels singing glory to God.
I get that most of us have not encountered an angel chorus lately, but we know the whiplash turn from terror to wonder. We know how it feels when faith and fear are jumbled up together. We know what it’s like when all we can do is what the shepherds do – put one foot in front of the other, follow this curious and unsettling path that has opened in the middle of our ordinary lives, and see where it leads.
In the midst of confusion and uncertainty a baby is born. God finds this surprising way to enter the world. God continues to find surprising ways to show up in our lives, to save us in spite of all our best efforts to pretend that we don’t need saving. Maybe God shows up as a baby because a baby has a better chance of making us stop and recognize our own fragility. Our own need for the love that only God can give.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night.” It’s the song that I most associate with Christmas Eve, having grown up singing it much like we’ll do tonight, holding candles that illuminate the faces around us and make the shadows dance.
I love many things about “Silent Night,” but one of the things I love best is that it captures so many facets of the Christmas story – the silence and calm as Mary ponders, the shepherds quaking in fear and awe, the angels bursting forth in song, the light shining in the darkness.
You don’t have to feel any one emotion tonight. You don’t have to be any one way to be loved by the God who loves us so much that he enters the world as one of us.
The radiant beams from the holy face of the Christ child shine across the centuries. They shine again tonight, bringing light into the darkest corners of our lives. May the redeeming grace of the Christ child enfold you on this holy night and hold you in the days to come. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47
My friend Ginger is the mother of four children, including ten-year-old twins. Yesterday she noted that an objectively factual statement can produce very different feelings – a statement like “There are only ten days until Christmas!” As she observed, “In a ten year old’s voice, this is a statement of great joy and anticipation. In my voice, not so much.” Maybe you feel that difference this morning as we’re down to nine days until Christmas. For some there is eager anticipation, but for others there is mild panic.
There’s another statement that can prompt many different feelings, depending on the circumstances. It’s the statement “I’m pregnant.” The two women in today’s gospel can tell you that. Each of them knows that those two words spoken aloud will bring consequences for which they may not be prepared.
When Elizabeth tells people that she is pregnant, she does so as someone who had given up expecting a child. She is old, she has been barren for decades, and she had long ago decided that her dream of being a mother would not come true. Elizabeth doesn’t even get the news of her miraculous pregnancy directly. An angel messenger tells her husband Zechariah first. But we hear earlier in this first chapter of Luke that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she became pregnant. I can well imagine that she wanted to avoid the whispers and stares of her neighbors, although it seems they have already been gossiping about her for years. Elizabeth says about her pregnancy, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” No one wants to feel disgrace from others. It eats away at confidence and contentment.
For Mary to say the words “I’m pregnant” raises a different set of fears. She is, unlike Elizabeth, quite young. Engaged to be married, preparing for a life with Joseph. When we encounter her today, she has just heard the shocking news of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. “How can this be?” she has wondered out loud. For her the consequences are potentially more grim. Mary has every reason to believe that she will be cast out in shame, at best left to fend for herself in a world that has no place for a single mother and at worst put to death for what will be seen as a betrayal of Joseph.
Faced with her perplexing situation, Mary sets off to a town in the hill country. She seeks out Elizabeth. Isn’t that our deepest longing when we are trying to make sense of something that has knocked the wind out of us? We want someone who will listen to us without judgment.
When Mary and Elizabeth find each other, notice that they don’t even have to say the words out loud. Neither one has to say to the other, “You are never going to believe this…” They just know. And they express joy for one another. The neighbors may whisper about them behind their backs, but this is not a time for whispering. This is a time for singing.
Elizabeth sings of promises kept, God’s promise of a messiah who will at long last be born. She sings of the role that Mary now has in God’s plan, a role whose fulfillment will make her forever blessed. Even before Elizabeth sings, the child within her jumps with joy. Remember that Elizabeth’s child will grow up to be John the Baptizer, the one who will point people to Jesus and prepare the way of the Lord. It’s clear that he learned to do that in part from his own mother’s faith.
Mary in turn sings of her part in God’s unfolding plan of mercy and justice. She cries out in confidence that God will turn the world upside down. Mary sings of a God who is not interested in giving the rich more of what they already have. God is much more concerned with lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry. God’s mercy will not be contained; it demands a fulfillment that has been a long time coming. Mary makes a bold proclamation for a young unwed mother who is preparing to face the worst shame of her life, but what a song it is. A song for the ages.
It’s impossible to understand exactly what Mary and Elizabeth are experiencing in this moment. But we do understand what it feels like to fear the judgments of others. We do it all the time. We look around and imagine that everyone else’s family, everyone else’s job, everyone else’s mental health is somehow better than our own, and all of the people around us would look at us with pity if they only knew the truth. So we keep everything close, hiding those parts of our story of which we feel ashamed and letting them eat away at us.
Instead of hiding, what would it be like to sing? What if we could sing in the midst of our fear that others are judging us? I don’t mean that we literally have to sing, although that would be fine. But what if we could speak with courage of a trust in God’s purposes for us and for the world? A trust that God loves us all the more fervently when we are overwhelmed. A God who invites us to take part in the feeding of the hungry and the lifting up of the lowly.
Maybe it’s hard to find our own words to sing. Then try singing Mary’s. Speak her words of promise out loud each day, and you might find yourself – slowly, over time – believing them for your own life: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Today the choir is singing one of my favorite anthems: “Mary, Did You Know?” Among the verses we hear:
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.
I’ve often wondered how much Mary knew at the beginning. Given her song, we know that she trusted in God’s power to overturn every injustice in the world. She knew that the baby she was carrying was part of a story that had been unfolding since the creation of the universe. I bet she did know that this baby would be the source of her own deliverance – and everyone else’s – and perhaps she even knew that the path to that salvation would be a painful one.
The question for us, for those of us who live on the other side of the manger and the cross and the empty tomb, is: Do we know? Do we know that Jesus has come to save us and the whole world?
Are we able to sing with Mary a song of joy and justice, a song of hope for what has been and what has yet to be?
I pray that we can. It is, in the end, what Christmas is all about. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ