Despite the Scrooges among us who annually decry the commercialization, the crassness and the blatant sentimentality of so much of the Christmas preparations, it is still a magical time of the year. The daily popping out of multi-colored lights at doorways and windows, the tree lots that seem to spring up overnight, the magnificent window displays, the wreaths, the tinsel, the reds and greens and sound of bells–it all evokes a tone of excitement and anticipation. It is as if the entire world is preparing for a visit from an emissary from another world.
Of course, like typical Americans, we overdo it. Much of the music is too loud and incessant; we are saturated with carols long before Christmas ever arrives; many of the decorations are too big, too gaudy; but still, isn’t it a remarkable time of year?
Our impulse to have a fairy tale stage seems to take our minds off the harsh Christmas realities. For even as we are caught up in the glitter and the tinsel we know that all is not well in the world. Fact: Murder and robbery in the United States reaches its highest peak in December. Fact: The Christmas season ranks just under Memorial Day weekend in the number of car wrecks on the highway. Fact: The suicide rate will begin its annual climb until it peaks out at what some call the “big downer” New Years Eve. This is the reality of Christmas. No tinsel, no glitter–just harsh reality.
So we turn from a fairy tale setting that appears to gloss over and deny to a Christmas Biblical narrative that appears on the surface to do the same thing. The story has the ring of a fairy tale. There is Elizabeth, for example, and her husband Zechariah, an elderly couple who have long since despaired of having any children, suddenly making an announcement to the community that she is with child. His name was to be called John. Later he would be known as the Baptist. Even Zechariah is unbelieving as he says in amazement, we are told, “I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years. Yet, it happened.
Across town there is another birth announcement, and this one too has the ring of mysticism. The young girl Mary, who is barely more than a child herself, the betrothed to Joseph, suddenly finds herself with child. Like Elizabeth, she is a peasant, a nobody, a nameless face in the passing parade of history. Yet, she is told that this child is to be called Emmanuel, which means God with us.
And then the two get together, the old lady pregnant with John, who will be called The Baptist, and the young child pregnant with Jesus, who is to be called Emmanuel. And the child in Elizabeth’s womb kicks at the sound of Mary’s voice. Whatever are we to make of this strange story of visions and angels and virgin births. Truth? Fiction? Legend? Fact?
There are those who would quickly tell us that we are doing with our religion the same thing that we do with our Christmas tinsel and glitter. They tell us that the story, like the decorations, offer us a temporary release from our hum drum realities. They will tell us that the story is little more than a fairy tale for adults who are seeking the lost innocence of our childhood. Like so many things associated with Christmas there is a “It isn’t really so, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were?” ring to it all. It seems to have little relation to Christmas realities–the crime, the wrecks, the increased mental anguish, world-wide tension, and complicated personal lives.
But in the midst of all of this I would simply like to make one observation. Mary and Elizabeth did not live in a fantasy world of tinsel and glitter. Like us, they lived in a world that had its harsh realities. If our world has its terrorists groups–the PLO and Afghanistan. so too did their world–the Iscariots and the Zealots. If our world has its decadent dictators– so too did their world–Herod Antipas of Jerusalem. If in our world we hear freedom’s cry coming from China, so it was in their world, with cries of freedom from the Jews and the rumblings of Rome’s legends. Their world and our world aren’t really so far apart.
And, like us, they lived in a world that had its own private realities. They lived in a world where old ladies were not supposed to get pregnant and neither were young ones who were not married. They lived in a world where human life was held cheap, a world that eventually took the lives of both of their children. And yes, they lived in a world that did not understand the ways of God.
The point is this. It was in the very midst of all of this harsh reality that Elizabeth and Mary continued to believe and hope in a God who can do marvelous things. They did this in a world very much like ours. And that is why God so uniquely came to them. Not because they were somehow protected from harsh reality. But precisely because in the midst of harsh reality they continued to be open to the voice of God.
It was faith that enabled them to experience the things that they did. Above the din of clanking armies and a torn homeland these two women heard the silent voice of God. While others went about their daily routines they saw the choirs of angels singing. They saw, they heard, they believed. And thus came our Lord into the world. He, his disciples, and even Mary and Elizabeth were not immune to life’s hardships. But he taught them how to live in this harsh reality. He can teach you, too. Amen.