As we approach the shortest day of the year – the longest night - the lights are getting brighter, in this sanctuary and on our streets, as Christmas lights pop up everywhere. Pretty much everyone you meet acknowledges the joy and inner warmth Christmas lights evoke. I heard the other day on the radio of an 83 year old man in Newmarket who has been building his Christmas light show for some 40 years. It takes him 3 months to erect because at 83 he’s moving slower these days.
Many modern-day people in this nation are confused or even ignorant of the Christmas story. We live in a very diverse society – a beautiful mosaic of faiths and ethnic origins. Families with a British or European background can also find themselves far removed from the Christmas story - since we are into second and third generations now of unchurched people. The meaning behind the story of the baby Jesus – the implications of a God coming to earth in human form to dwell among us – and the timelessness of that message, is getting quite lost.
Yet still these lights stir in every heart a deep truth – a longing, you might say, that can no longer these days be put into words. Deep calling to deep.
What we are all doing (consciously or unconsciously) as we string lights and garlands or drive around at night passing twinkling lights of red and green or blue and white – or strange combinations (at least it’s like that at my house) is breathing a little deeper and slower. What we are doing in this seasonal ritual, especially this year, is re-enacting a very ancient story of the anticipation by humankind – the longing for union with the One who Created us; the One who fashioned the stars. The creative spark behind sea creatures and baby owls. We are somehow finding a way to speak of such longing, without words. We know the unspoken desire to experience the Divine presence – where we will finally make sense of our lives and live in peace and harmony.
Our gospel story for today tells of the fulfillment of this longing -- the beautiful, powerful and very earthy story in Luke’s gospel of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. It’s an earthy story because Elizabeth and Mary are pregnant – both surging with hormones, full of emotion; possessing a heightened sense of things – as all pregnant women are. This is a first for both of them. It’s a beautiful story of two women, bound together through family ties, yet living apart, reuniting in an embrace over wonderful tidings of new life.
A powerful story in numerous ways, it points to the incredible internal creative workings of the body, and the heart. The news of pregnancy in a committed loving relationship proclaims fidelity, belonging, continuity, legacy, fertility, and being blessed by one’s Creator. Powerful in anticipation. Anyone who has been present at a birth knows first-hand, it is often life-changing to witness the power of the human body to reproduce and the forces of life that propel this small vulnerable little baby into the world. A crazy juxtaposition of opposites, filling one with awe and hope. They say it is one of those liminal places -- where earthly and heavenly realms collide.
So here we have these two women: Elizabeth – full of hope and gratitude and probably some fear – for the well-being of herself and her child as she conceives for the first time well beyond child-bearing years; and Mary – full of hope, wonder and awe and probably much fear as well. As a very young inexperienced girl – giving birth for the first time was risky. Then there was the potential rejection and judgement by her community for conceiving out of wedlock.
So, in this meeting of the very old and the very young, both with child – teaming with vulnerability and fragility, we witness a different kind of power.
I want you to picture little Mary… fourteen years old perhaps… naïve, innocent – still a child herself . I can hear in my imagination her voice, the voice of the servant Mary “theotokos” (the Greek word used to describe Mary – ‘the bearer of God’). This small, adolescent female voice, high and breathless. “Elizabeth!? It’s me Mary – your cousin.” And I can hear the frailty in her cousin’s voice. Some sources put Elizabeth as old as 88. “Child! Why have you come? How did you get here? Do you parents know you’ve travelled all this way?”.
None of these earthly human concerns warrant being recorded here. Rather, Elizabeth recounts a strange, mysterious happening: “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Now I always used to read this as John, in the womb,reacting to the presence of Jesus – but the text says, “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting”. It is the tiny adolescent voice of Mary… the God bearer – which causes such a fetal reaction, followed by Elizabeth’s rhetorical question, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Some translations say, “Who am I?”
This beautiful, powerful, earthy meeting of the two pregnant cousins culminates in Mary’s response, which comes directly after our gospel passage today in verses 46 to 56. It has come to be known as Mary’s Song of Praise or The Magnificat. Breaking away from Elizabeth, Mary proclaims, “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Such humility, gratitude, and receptivity expressed by both women with urgency and joy. They are encountering an incarnational God, in and through their physical bodies. Not over there in a burning bush, or twice removed, not rules and regulations conveyed in a scroll read by a high priest in the synagogue, not through impressive weighty words handed down to them at the dinner table by the men in the family.
Rather, we have here life responding to life. Locked in each other’s arms, the two women must have been aware of – over and above the extremely precarious and vulnerable position they found themselves in, that deep within their physical bodies they held something beyond themselves. That is the mystery. That is the mystery of which we long to understand and stand in awe. That is why childbirth – just like death – is one of those liminal spaces where we sense the presence of the Divine in ways that fill us with hope and wonder.
A beautiful, powerful, earthy story. Shall we put it away now until the same time next year? When perhaps things will be different – and we can sing again and gather and feel less vulnerable and alone and fearful?
Don’t you dare put this story to bed. Because this story is your story. This story is being re-enacted each day – when you wake each morning – and say ‘yes’ to the presence of God and the stirring of God’s Holy Spirit deep within you. It is reenacted when you see something beautiful out your window and it stirs in you some deep longing. or when you drive by some Christmas lights. This is the story of the incarnational God, coming to dwell on earth and take up residence within you. How will you respond? How will you acknowledge the frailty of your own self – and at the same time celebrate the power of God within? Will your neighbor recognize this Divine inner presence? Will you, by your own simple faith and receptivity of Christ in your life allow deep to call to deep? Allow something deep within them to quicken and leap for joy in the face of suffering and uncertainty?
Say yes to being a bearer of Christ this Christmas. In your own poverty and lowliness of spirit – watch as others respond to the mystery of the Divine in you. It’s not rocket science, it’s not unattainable. You don’t need theological degrees or any special skill. You just need to say yes to God and cultivate that Holy presence. It will change the world.