After today, there are just two shopping days left until Christmas--and one of them is Christmas Eve when, as some people say, you can get the best bargains around on the merchandise that is still available.
The business side of Christmas--the commercialism of it--doesn't bother me as much as it does some. There are those who think that the spiritual import of the season may be forgotten. Not a chance. The spiritual significance of Christmas is so dominant that many people who ordinarily are indifferent to religion go out of their way to find a religious service to attend. It seems to me that this is part of the miracle of Christmas.
The exchange of gifts, the decorations of our homes and neighborhoods--these are not contradictions to the spiritual importance of Christmas. They are traditions and rituals that help rekindle in our consciousness what happened a long time ago at Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. They help us recall emotions that otherwise might be lost. The simple fact that God has come near us in Jesus Christ is a story that never grows old and the visual images and rituals of the season help to tell the story
Rituals are important. They build solidarity and generate loyalty. Are their particular Christmas rituals at your house--familiar ways of handing out the gifts, perhaps? Some people go through the motions of carefully folding and saving the wrapping paper. "We'll use it again next year." Do you really do that?
I really don't know how to explain it, but every year it happens. Some special quality of Divine Presence invades our world. It's as if some magic wand is waved over the world, and people and things become different as, year after year, the world in some measure stops to listen to the story.
Today, our Gospel lesson gives us the words to the world's first Christmas song. It is the Christmas song that Mary sang,
It all begins when the young girl Mary goes to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth, to share the news about her expected baby. She finds that Elizabeth has gone on a retreat to the mountains. When they meet, Mary understands if you were Elizabeth's age and found out you, too, were pregnant you'd probably, develop a sudden need for some fresh air, too. (We don't know just how old Elizabeth was, but Luke tells us that she and her husband "both were advanced in years"so we can assume, she was quite a bit more than thirty- something
When Elizabeth hears Mary's greeting, she knows the news already and breaks out into a song of blessing in honor of the young Mary. Now, you understand the literary nature of the story before us when you know that these two women are addressing each other in highly structured poetic language. Many of the problems and controversies that arise from the interpretation of this passage exist because the interpreters forget they are reading poetry.
Elizabeth blesses Mary on two accounts: the first is that she is to become the Mother of the Lord; and the second is that she believed that God's word to her would be fulfilled.
Protestants--especially those of us in the Reformed tradition--don't know quite what to make of Mary. Except for giving her lip service on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes, for the most part we have ignored her. I think that is both unfortunate arid unnecessary. Because, you see there is something about Mary that presents a model Christian for us--an example of what it ought to be like to be a Christian. (Raymond Brown, the New Testament scholar, calls Mary the first Christian disciple.)
And we get our first glance at that model when we see it through they eyes of Elizabeth. Mary has become a different person, she has found a new purpose in her life, because she heard the word of God and believed it. Karl Barth says that Mary's pregnancy was a "procreation realized by the ear of Mary which heard the word of God." Some of you can tell about similar experiences--times when you have been very sure that God's word has come to you in special ways, and as a result you life has taken some unexpected turns. When we are open to the possibility of hearing the word of God, the future is pregnant with potential and new opportunities. That is one of the lessons we might learn from Mary.
Mary responds to Elizabeth's blessing with this beautiful poem, this Christmas song we call "The Magnificat" because of its first words in Latin: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Here is a question for you lifelong Presbyterians: does that sound like a theme you have heard somewhere before? Does it remind you, per chance, of the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism? Who remembers what it says? "What is the chief end of man?" "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Mary expresses her joy and excitement in a song. How do you express the ways in which you enjoy God? Or is that an entirely new idea to you? There is so much negative stuff associated with religion these days: the lists of things to fear and avoid seem unending. Has it ever occurred to you that faith ought to be a source of joy? But that, too, is part of the Christmas miracle, and it is one of the lessons we might learn from the song of this young God-bearer.
The mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is His name", sings Mary. And yes, that is the song of Christmas, too: that God has done great things, and holy is His name. That is the Christmas gospel. Look at how, suddenly now in this carol, things that are yet to happen are described as things that have already occurred. What God intends for his people has already been fulfilled: the covenant mercy of God in Jesus Christ will reach to all generations and all peoples. This infant Jesus is still but a gleam in his mother's eye and already he has "scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts...and has exalted those of low degree, and filled the hungry with good things."
If Mary, this one who bears the son of God to all humanity, is indeed the first Christian disciple, it is fitting that Luke should place on her lips the sentiments that Jesus will make the hallmark of discipleship for those who would follow him.
This photograph is one I took. It is of a statue by the Kentucky sculptor Roberts Lockhart, and it stands outside the wonderful new Epiphany Roman Catholic Church in a Louisville suburb. To my mind, it is a very Protestant depiction of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Mary is the one who lifts up the Christ, who bears the Christ to the world.
Isn't that a perfect description of what a God-bearer ought to do? Isn't her song a beautiful celebration of the message a God-bearer ought to bring? Isn't it a description of what we toy, must do and be if we would be God-bearers, Christian disciples, in the world we live in?
What the world needs right now, I think, is a few more God-bearers who understand the wonder and the joy of what God intends for his people. "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.. and his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation."
At Christmas we celebrate a mighty act of God. God sends the gift of a child into the world. Of course, every birth is a gift of God's grace; every child represents a new potential for the universe. Each newborn is a sign that God has not given up on the world. With Jesus, particularly, a new spirit was released into the world: a mystery beyond our understanding, but a mystery within reach of our celebration.
On this Sunday before Christmas, this last Sunday in Advent, we move closer to the manger at Bethlehem. That will not be the end of the journey, only its beginning. From there on, from then on, we are the ones who must be the God-bearers. And here is our song: "He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name." Say it with me: ''He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name." Amen.
NOW, GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, AND ON EARTH, PEACE TO ALL THOSE OF GOODWILL. AMEN.
John C. Bush