Throughout Advent, we’ve been accompanied by these amazing prophets who are walking us through this beautiful season. The prophets are not fortune tellers; they cannot see the future. They are the ones who believe in God’s story and they help us to better understand God’s story, both in history and in our own lives now in this moment in time. We hear the words of the beautiful prophet Micah in today’s readings and then we hear from the prophet, Mary, the mother of God. We don’t often hear her referred to as a prophet, do we? But in fact, she is a great prophet because she embraces God’s story through the love and wisdom she shares as a mother to Jesus.
Let us pray, O Holy One, we are grateful for your coming into this world and being part of us, letting us be a part of you. You come bringing light and peace and love and you inspire us to share those gifts with a world in need. Bless us with the gift of child-like wonder as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into this season of hope. Amen.
This Gospel from Luke today includes various pieces of information that are part of the birth tradition of Jesus. Luke, as a writer, used a technique of many Jewish story tellers down through the ages that is called “midrash.” As one writer noted, ‘Midrash’ is sort of like Jazz, that is to say that it takes some popular themes that people understood, and much like a Jazz player might take the themes of a popular song and play around with those themes in various ways, this story-teller takes certain themes like the birth of a child, the birth of a hero, the coming together of extended family, the wonderful knowledge that children have that’s different than how adults see the world, Luke takes these themes and weaves them into this important story.
Of course, we know that Mary must have felt very overwhelmed, perhaps joyful to know she is having a baby, but also afraid and anxious as well with what this all means in her life. The angel had visited her and told her that she would be the mother of a Savior. It’s hard to guess how Mary made sense of all of that. And so she sets out to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant but at a very different time in her life. We have Mary and Elizabeth as the central characters of this story, as well as the babies soon to arrive, and each having their own story to share with the world.
Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house in the hills of Judea for a three-month stay. One commentator observes that scenes featuring women as protagonists with no men present are rare in the Bible, and Luke strikingly bookends the life of Jesus with two such scenes: at the end, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of women, and here at the beginning, Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visiting Elizabeth. In this sense, Luke turns the marginalization of women on its head: at both of these crucial points in the action — birth and death, womb and tomb — it’s women at the center of the story.
Mary’s song — called the “Magnificat” after the song’s first word in the Latin translation, echoes one found in the Hebrew Scriptures: Hannah’s song of gratitude to God for the newness of life embodied in her son, Samuel. In the book of Samuel, Hannah was seen as a strong and courageous woman with an understanding of the future, and one who importantly appreciated the history of Israel’s relationship with God. When she thanked God for Samuel, Hannah sang of divine majesty and power, painting a picture of God as a master of reversals: YHWH “raises up the poor from the dust,” even as “the bows of the mighty are broken” (1 Samuel 2:1-10). And so, in Luke’s Gospel, Mary is seen in that role, as she sings a song of praise to God, while also showing her deep understanding of what God wants for our world. Hers is a song of great joy as well as a vision of how the great suffering of our world must be changed.
The author and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that “while happiness usually depends on circumstances, joy runs deeper. “Joy,” he explained, “is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” Joy and sorrow can not only coexist; joy can even be found in the midst of sorrowful circumstances. By all outward appearances, Mary’s situation was difficult and vulnerable, but her effervescent song of joy flows from a wellspring deeper than the surface of things.
Mary sings a revolutionary song about God’s revolutionary love, as she touches upon many important themes in the Bible. Her witness may inspire us to embrace the traditions we have inherited in our lives of faith and from those who have come before us who help us to know how to move forward, especially in challenging and painful times. Mary’s story is also important because in her time of crisis, she went to someone whom she trusted for support and wisdom. I think we all know how important it is to have a community of dear friends or family whom we trust to provide guidance and support at times in our lives. And, like Mary, we can draw inspiration from those who have come before us as well as our friends, so that we too may have the courage to lift up our voices and sing: “Joy to the world, for God is lifting up the lowly!”
I imagine that we have all had some experience with the joy of someone in our circle awaiting for the birth of a new baby. We come to imagine who this baby will be long before we meet them. We share dreams and hopes for them and for their future. The babies are obviously central to this amazing story; we hear the hopes of their mothers long before they arrive: Jesus and John, the one who will become ‘the Baptist’.
There is a story about babies that I had never heard that was shared in one of the articles I read. Many people believe that infants come from God and have knowledge of God. This little part of our lip here is there because just before we come to earth, after having been with God, God tells these little ones to not share what they have learned from their time with God and then puts a finger over the lips as a wait to remind them to keep silent and so, some believe that the little indentation above our upper lip is God’s fingerprint. I had never heard that, but it is a sweet story. And some within the Jewish faith believe that God kisses babies before they leave heaven. God kisses them on top of their heads and that’s that soft spot which eventually hardens and the babies forget the wisdom they knew of God.
So Luke carefully weaves these little pieces of a story together, these little details, that give us a glimpse of this beautiful visit between two women who are sharing their journey of pregnancy, perhaps of worry but also of joy and hope. Luke, as a story-teller, helps us to ‘enter the story’ and so, throughout our lives, we carry this story in our hearts each year so that we can become part of this great drama, this story of a humble birth of one child who is the prince of peace, Jesus.
Any of us who have read aloud to children know well that young children have a wonderful ability to enter into the stories they are told. Often, they allow their imaginations to take them to places in the story, to think of themselves as characters in a story, and usually, if they love a special story, they want it read to them night after night after night. Remember that?
There is a children’s book titled, Henry Climbs the Mountain by D.B. Johnson (Sept 2003). Based on the story of Thoreau and his commitment to civil disobedience, the book is about a bear who loses his shoe and later is thrown into prison for not paying his taxes where he finds a big wall in his cell. There is also some paint, so Henry the bear starts to paint a picture on that wall. He paints a shoe and he finds he is able to put his foot into the shoe that he painted, and then he starts realizing as he paints the scenery outside that he can get into the picture and be outside of his prison cell. He discovers in the magic of the story that he can enter into the story. It’s a great Christmas story, in some ways.
We believe that Christmas is about God entering into the story of our world. God had created this majestic and amazing universe, including our home, planet earth and God is so in love with all of creation-so beautiful, so intricate, so varied, that God wants to enter into the creation. God makes a stable and the story of stable and in the form of the baby Jesus, he lays down in the stable in a little manger and enters the story completely by being born into the creation that was made around him. That’s what Christmas is all about.
We are invited to enter this beautiful and amazing story too, in new ways, in our way, with all of our imagination and to welcome Jesus into our lives with childlike innocence and awe as well as with the fullness of our adult realities, so that we enter the story wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey with adult-like needs and hopes and sorrows. And so I invite us in the days ahead to use our imaginations and to enter this wonderful story of the birth of this baby Jesus, and to allow ourselves to be there in that cold, starlit night, alongside the cows and the sheep, and peer into that manger seeking whatever it is we most need to believe that God loves us.
Homilies of Faith, Sundays with Rev. William Kenneally
Commentary, SALT Project.com