In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…
[And Mary said,
“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;
We have come to the end of Advent. Advent has been rough this year. We have endured talk of the end times and John the Baptist’s fiery preaching from the river banks.
Finally today, on this last Sunday of Advent things start to sound a little more Christmasy. Elizabeth, a woman thought to be too old to conceive and barren, is pregnant with John. Mary, a virgin still only engaged to be married, is pregnant with the Messiah.
Today’s story sounds beautiful and picturesque. It is easy for us to imagine two delightfully pregnant women greeting one another lovingly; a scene that makes us smile.
But we forget to consider the struggles these two women are facing. Elizabeth is older than a pregnant woman should be. She and Zechariah will be raising a child in their old age, more like grandparents who have unexpectedly found themselves raising children again. While Mary is a young unmarried teen girl, and her fiancé is not the father of her child. Joseph could call the marriage off at best… maybe forcing Mary to a life of begging on streets, with a child to care for. At worst, both she and her unborn child could be stoned for adultery. For both women in their day, child birth was dangerous and all too often women would not survive the birth experience without some luck. There is probably more relief than joy while the women greet one another, as Mary has gone with haste to see her cousin, to avoid the judgement of her hometown family and friends.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth is not one of those Christmas movies. Rather it is story full of fear and danger, one that stands in contrast to the Christmas image we generally try to present. Mary and Elizabeth challenge the notion that Christmas is about shopping, baking, decorating and hosting. Mary and Elizabeth introduce things we don’t want to talk about this time of year. Fear, danger, shame and uncertainty.
In the middle of Advent, St. David’s church was having an extraordinary congregational meeting. It was a busy time of year. The actors for the annual pageant were having regular rehearsals. Father Angelo and Father Michael were frantic with preparations, sermon writing, and pre-Christmas visits. Everyone was busy with all the usual Christmas stuff at home – office parties, school concerts, family visits – it was not a good time for a congregational meeting.
Yet, the basement of the church was packed full of people.
The meeting was extraordinary because it had not been called by the parish board or the priests. It had been called by special petition. Simon, the building committee chair, had gotten the 35 signatures required to call a special meeting of the congregation.
The president of the congregation stood up to the mic and called the meeting to order. She asked Father Angelo to lead the congregation in prayer. Then the president asked Simon to read the one motion that the congregation was to vote on.
Simon came to the mic, “I move that our congregation cancel our plans to sponsor the refugees. Bill seconds the motion.”
When Simon finished, people began to murmur and talk.
The president had to ask for quiet. She then open the floor to debate, with Simon getting to speak first as the mover of the motion.
“Our parish board went ahead a decided to sponsor those people without asking us. Because they know what we would have said. They know that Father Angelo and the tour group was over there when it happened. They stuck in that church only a few blocks from the bombs. We don’t think bringing people who could be terrorists to our church is right. We need to vote no, before they get here next week.”
The real story of Mary discovering that she is pregnant unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we hope to create. The perfect and ideal vision of the perfect family preparing for a new baby. This is the Christmas we try to tirelessly create each year, a diversion from the messiness and struggle of real life. We want to imagine Mary and Elizabeth as calm and peaceful expectant mothers, as if they this is the way the planned to have children all along.
But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.
God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about couples too old to raise a child, about judgment and the threat of death. And it is about how God’s people respond to fear and danger.
After Simon’s speech, people started shouting, some in support, others against Simon’s motion. The president had to call for order again.
June stood up to the mic, June was like everyone’s favourite surrogate grandma at St. David’s. “Now Simon, you are just being silly. Syrian Refugees need our help. We have to welcome them.”
Again people started shouting, again the president called for order.
This time Nelly, the director of the Christmas Pageant was at the mic. “I don’t know what to think. I watch the news and all these people are leaving their homes, but then it feels like every week some new act of terrorism happens. I don’t know what the answer is.”
The debate went on like this for 30 minutes. People speaking passionately for one side or the other, with many stuck in the middle.
Jim was standing in line at the mic behind 5 people. His 11 year old daughter Lizzie beside him. Finally it was his turn to speak.
“I don’t actually have anything to say” he said. “Lizzie does. Can she speak Mme. President.” There was more murmuring from the crowd. The president nodded.
Sometimes the real world can get in the way of Christmas. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to an old woman and unwed teen mom living in poverty.
God does not wait for the everything to be perfect or to fall into place in order to begin the work of the incarnation. God does not come only when it is safe and there is nothing to fear. God’s activity of taking on our flesh and becoming like us starts now. God comes to us, whether we want God to or not.
Mary’s and Elizabeth’s real life shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, visions of perfect Christmases. Mary and Elizabeth show us a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.
Jim lowered the mic for his daughter. Lizzie stepped up, she looked around the room, pulled out a piece of paper to read.
“I am not afraid” she said. “I am not afraid because I would want a church like this to let my family come if we had to run from home or war. The refugees might be terrorists but they might be kids too. Kids like the boy on the beach. Kids like me. Kids who need homes and schools and safe places to live. St. David’s is a safe place. I know that because my parents always tell me that if I am lost, I can come here and people will take care of me. Father Angelo, Father Michael, June, Nelly, Simon. They tell me that you are safe people and you can take care of me. They tell that I am safe here because this is God’s house, and God makes it safe.”
Lizzie stepped back from the mic and grabbed for father’s hand. The two went and sat down together.
For when Mary gets past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when she get past the fear of death for adultery, she with her husband to be Joseph, with her elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, they all become guardians of God’s promise, bearers of the Good News made flesh.
And it is the same for us, when our fears and worries get out in the way, when we can’t see what God is up to. God comes anyways. And God bears grace and mercy for the world in us. God makes us the messengers of the Good News of God’s love and compassion for all. God sends Messiah to frightened world.
And because of what God is doing, with Mary, we can sing:
“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.”