A depiction of Mary and Elizabeth.
Luke 1:46b-55 (Magnificat)
Yesterday the ice weighed the trees down as I steadily and near simultaneously prepared for Advent 4, Christmas Eve, traveling across the country, and for what will happen here at church when I get back from my Christmastide break.
Seeing the pine branches outside my window nearly touching the ground called my attention to the weight in my own shoulders as I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily podcast do their 2017 Year in Sound.
And I began to seriously identify with the pine branches outside my window, weighed down by a cold, steady force over which they have no control: the freezing rain falling from the sky.
I think we’re all feeling a little weighed down in one sense or another: even if you’re lucky enough not to have personal troubles and heartaches, national and international news is one, long, sad stream of facts and fake facts and accusations interspersed with tragedy.
And just as the pine branches are sinking low, Advent 4 and Christmas Eve fall on the same day, a day which puts anticipation and anxiety in tension as churches everywhere, and the tired, weighed down people within them, tried to figure out what to do about it.
“What are you doing about Christmas Eve this year?” was the question that burned through clergy Facebook groups for the entire fall.
For me, the question seemed pretty simple: there are four candles on the Advent wreath, meaning that we have four Sundays in Advent. The festival of Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve is a Sunday, making Christmas Eve itself the fourth Sunday of Advent.
When I shared this with a friend, he responded, “Yeah, but this is New England. I feel like only people who really love Jesus will show up on Sunday morning.”
So congratulations on really loving Jesus, according to a theologically off and offhanded not-to-be-trusted comment by a particularly snarky member of the clergy.
Or if you showed up thinking this would be a Christmas service… sorry.
I get the hesitation. It almost seems too close to still be waiting.
Especially when we’re all this tired and weighed down. If I told you that this year has been the longest year on record, you’d probably believe me for a second. The news cycle moves ever faster and faster in a carousel of 24 hour cable news and tweets and podcasts and phone alerts. Usually, for the left and the right, the message is something to the effect of: a critical foundation of what makes us America is in jeopardy and we must save it!
And you’ve come to church in the middle of a day when you’re no doubt spinning a to-do list around the back of your mind in an age when mortal peril more than occasionally seems pretty close at hand. And what do you get for it?
You get the angel visiting Mary, and between thing about your to-do list, you might question once again the science of a virgin giving birth. That’s always the point in the story when we miss the forest for the Christmas trees.
Because I’m no scientist, but I was a history major tasked with putting stories from the past back together using verifiable facts, and based on that training, I’m a thousand percent sure that zero research can be done on the actual facts of this case, but the theologian in me says that you can get at the point of the story, which is this: humans alone didn’t make it happen.
The point of the story, I think, is that though Mary had her role, human beings alone didn’t make God become flesh, because humans have proven that if we’re pretty incapable of one thing, it’s saving ourselves in any way that lasts. And while that knowledge frequently weighs us down, the whole idea of this faith thing, as least as far as I understand it, is that maybe we’re not the saviors, but the saved.
An image I heard once was that waiting for God’s reign of peace is sometimes something like waiting at the arrivals gate at the airport for someone you love to arrive. You can do nothing but wait. You can’t do one thing to speed the process or to make your loved one show up in your vision. All you can do is to scan face after face, waiting to recognize the face you love.
Human beings are bad at saving themselves and pretty incapable of manufacturing hope within ourselves, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.
You see, we can’t save ourselves, but we’re are pretty dang good at giving each other hope, just by showing up, because we trust that if we all show up, maybe God will too. And so we go to the arrivals gate — well, the table — and we meet God there every single time.
Advent 4 was the Sunday, two years ago, when I met the entire congregation here. Advent 4 was the day you called me to be your pastor. On that day, just like today, we read the Magnificat and we heard about the angel visiting Mary.
We were all, perhaps, a little less weighed down then, though our world was arguably just as divided and scary as it is now. But that Sunday morning, in here, we met and we gave each other hope. And just for kicks, I revisited that sermon — the first sermon I ever preached here.
For some reason, you see, it stuck out to me that Mary doesn’t start singing when the angel gives her the news that she’s pregnant with God’s baby. She’s actually pretty human about it: she has lots of questions and a little bit of ambivalence. And Gabriel the angel says, “You know, your relative Elizabeth is pregnant via divine intervention too.”
Maybe it’s my pastor ears, but I think this move is pretty pastoral. It’s like when a pastor says, “Hey, so-and-so has been through something similar to what you’ve been going through recently; maybe it’d be helpful for you guys to talk.”
Gabriel doesn’t tell her to go to Elizabeth; he simply mentions that she’s in a similar situation: an unexpected pregnancy via divine intervention. As in the first century Holy Land as now, that is a very tiny segment of the population.
Gabriel doesn’t actually tell Mary to go to Elizabeth, but Luke says she still “made haste” to go to the Judean town in the hill country. Elizabeth, who is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, who will understand this thing that has happened to Mary, and who won’t think she’s crazy. And here, with another human being who understands that God works in really weird and unexpected and direct ways, Mary is able to find the courage to sing her song of hope.
And so here we are, two years after I first pointed that out to you who were here, and we’re all pretty bewildered and tired and weighed down with a thousand things to do this afternoon. And we have, once again, on Advent 4, just like Mary and Elizabeth, gathered together to sing songs of hope.
May this day when Christmas is so close that we can practically taste the sugar cookies, may we long for a day when peace on earth will be this close, too. We can’t bring it about. We can’t make it happen. But we can watch for it, pray for it, work for it, and continue to tune in to this crazy hope that it’s possible. We can keep coming to the arrivals gate — the table — to meet God.
My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in the Pacific Northwest, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent …Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we’re never let down at the last minute.” Even if we are exhausted or broken or weighed down when we get there, the Light always comes to us. Always. Christmas never fails to arrive, because God has already broken through. Christ was born in Bethlehem those many years ago.
We cannot save ourselves, but just like Mary, if we say yes, we can have a role in the coolest things. And just maybe, that can melt the ice that weighs us down.
I close with a prayer honoring Mary, posted by a clergy friend this week.
Let us pray.
“God of impossible love,
you needed Mary
to give consent,
to bear the scandal,
to carry the word within herself:
may her courage give hope
to all people
who yearn to sing new songs of justice
and find the world a dwelling place for God,
through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.” (1) Amen.
1. Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare