From a sermon given to St. Titus Church, Raleigh, NC. Please read Luke 1:39-56.
Last year we read Luke’s account of the Christmas story – and next year we will read Mat-thew’s account – but today we listen to part of Luke’s version again. Given our liturgical cycle, you might mistakenly suspect that there are only two Christmas stories – the ones in Matthew and Luke – but there are actually three portraits of this event. In Matthew’s account we get Joseph’s dream, the wise men, and the star in the East. In Luke’s narrative we get the Annunciation of Mary, angels in the heavens and shepherds in the fields, and no room in the inn. Then in the gospel according to Hallmark we get a smorgasbord of everything in Matthew and Luke plus all the bells and whistles of the secular season – plus six geese a laying, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. Obviously there are real differences between the biblical accounts and other versions.
The Christians of late antiquity loved symbolic correspondences and symmetries – dis-tinct events that complemented each other. And Luke’s gospel, especially his stories about Jesus and John the Baptist – is full of them. For example, his gospel opens with the story of two mira-culous conceptions and births. Both Jesus and John are conceived by impossible mothers – one a young virgin (likely a teenager), and the other a barren post-menopausal old woman – and both are announced by angels and surrounded by heavenly signs. Then in the Annunciation, Gabriel precisely fixes the birthday of John when he tells Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, is six months pregnant. So John is six months older than Jesus – and when Pope Julius I officially declared Jesus’ birth to be celebrated on Dec. 25 – the winter solstice – the church had a date for John’s as well – 6 months earlier on 24 June, the summer solstice. That done, Luke had neatly divided the year between John and Jesus. Early Christians loved symbolic correspondences and symmetries.
In addition to Luke’s account of two impossible births we have two angelic annunciations – two specially revealed names – and two canticles. The Magnificat is sung by Jesus’ mother and the Benedictus by John’s father, Zechariah. And there’s more. Jesus’ birth is in the dead of win-ter – John’s is in the height of summer. From John’s summertime birthday onwards the days be-gin to shorten and the darkness begins to grow longer – but from Jesus’ wintertime birthday on-wards the days begin to lengthen and the light begins to extend. Ancient commentators saw a link here to the passage in John’s gospel where the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” – and they liked to dwell on how this contrast was as gruesomely true of their deaths as it was of their missions and lives. John decreased literally since his head was chopped off – whereas Jesus increased because he was raised high on a cross and thence into heaven. But the symmetry was most obvious in the natural pattern of the year – after John’s birthday the days dwindle toward darkness – from Jesus’ birthday the days stretch towards the light.
In addition, it’s not coincidental for Luke that Mary is a young woman – pregnant and un-married. Gabriel tells her not to worry because her baby is God’s doing – but why shouldn’t she be confused and puzzled. She was pregnant – she hadn’t ‘been with’ a man – she wasn’t married. And if that were not enough to boggle her mind, Gabriel adds that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant, too. And then some even stranger things happen. When Mary visits Elizabeth, her baby leaps in her womb and she says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” – and she speaks of Mary’s baby as “my Lord”. But this is a striking reversal of form – the younger woman, Mary, should have honored the older Elizabeth. So this is the setting for the Magnificat – and for Mary to say “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. From now on generations will surely call me blessed – for the Mighty One has done great things for me – and holy is his name”. And at this point, Mary’s joy is bubbling over – it’s obvious she is hap-pily beside herself at having been chosen by God. And she appears ecstatically ready, as the say-ing goes, to ‘let go, and let God”. Or, as our children learn in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, this is Mary’s “yes” to God. “Let it be to me as you have said.”
Overall, two parts of today’s gospel stand out for special notice – Luke’s account of the infancy narratives and the Magnificat. The infancy narratives point out the relation of Mary’s child-in-the-womb to Elizabeth’s child-in-the-womb – of Jesus’ superiority as the one who will give salvation and forgiveness of sin and John’s inferiority as the forerunner of the prophet of the Most High. And Mary’s song is not merely her individual rejoicing at the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. When she switches from first-person singular to third-person plu-ral at v. 50, she says that God has done great things not only to her but that his mercy extends to all who reverence him – and her song signifies the universal benefit of God’s transformation of the world through Jesus and the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham. These are pivotal theolo-gical affirmations – the long-awaited Savior and God’s mercy extends to the entire world.
And this is wonderful news – but there is a dark side to this good news that is a compell-ing part of the whole story. Segmenting the several parts of this story has a way of distorting it – so we need to remember the harsh conditions in which Jesus’ birth occurred – and the horrible details of his passion and death – and think about the strident circumstances in which we now are preparing to celebrate his birth. So hold on, Mary – this won’t be easy. There are some really hard and painful times ahead. Yes, your baby will be wonderful – and he’ll grow up to be a very special, even a unique, man – but his birth is the first scene of his passion – and you will need to prepare yourself for the inexpressible agony of seeing your son denounced and reviled – cruelly punished – stripped of his clothing – nailed to a cross – and executed as a criminal. Is this what Gabriel meant when he said ‘you shouldn’t be afraid because God has been gracious to you’?” I am not the ‘grinch who stole Christmas’ but consider the contradictions and incongrui-ties that began to bombard us well before Thanksgiving. The sheer magnitude of misinformation and mawkishness these past weeks have been so numbing that it has all but anesthetized my Christmas spirit. I know that people can and do make anything they want of a holy day that has become a secular cultural festival – and many of them get offended by any criticism of their con-struction of this season. But the plain fact is that in the frenzied haste for Christmas to be here yesterday, the media and shopping malls – as well as many churches – have left me blinded by their bright lights and weary of hearing Christmas carols long before I should have heard them. Television programming has become increasingly banal – even tasteless – in a neverending effort to dilute Christmas into little more than a dandy time for ‘family and gifts’. And I’m reminded of Mark’ Twain’s comment that ‘if you don’t read newspapers, you’re uninformed; and if you do read newspapers, you’re misinformed’. Actually, the media and shopping malls – together with too many churches – help remind us that selfishness and greed, and pain and hurt, are alive and well in the world as we know it. The words and music are familiar – “deck the halls with boughs of holly” – “God rest you merry,” – “I’ll be home for Christmas” – but those lyrics ring hollow in a culture that has largely taken Jesus out of Christmas. “Silent night, holy night,” – “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” – “Away in a manger”- the words and music are familiar – but there is a vacant ring to them in the world as we know it.
Still. we buy Christmas presents and put up decorations and lights – and we are generally disposed to more charity and kindness than at any other time of the year? If that seems incongru-ous it’s because part of our vocation is to acknowledge our world as it is – precisely because it is into such a world as this that God came, and ever comes, to us as Jesus. So we are not blind to a general condition of wretchedness – we recognize the incongruity – the contradiction – and we don’t ignore or deny the world in all its pain and ugliness. Advent is a season of darkness and every year its liturgies invite us to take notice of the fact that this world – in which mean and terrible things actually happen – is the world into which Jesus comes. It is literally in and to this kind of world that our Lord Jesus comes. So we are asked to express contrition for our part in making those terrible and ugly things happen – and then make it our devout intention to amend our lives – and prepare to become that joyous people who will gladly welcome Jesus’ coming.
That isn’t easy, but when Christians struggle to get it right, the Blessed Virgin Mary – has long been the icon to whom we point – because she is especially known for her humble submis-sion – for her obedience – to God’s will for her. I know that the church has abused this doctrine at certain points in history – and that it’s old news that ‘obedience,’ as a religious doctrine, is not very fashionable these days – and that we tend to resist doing anything, whether sacred or secular, just because we are told to do it. Authority nowadays is widely supposed to reside in each indivi-dual – so even in schools and families and churches and courtrooms, obedience has become dilut-ed by assertions of individual autonomy.
All the same, according to the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke it was the obedi-ence and faithfulness of Mary and Joseph that made incarnation humanly possible – and obedi-ence is why we call the holy family ‘blessed’. We say that they are ‘blessed’ not because of who they were in themselves – a poor carpenter and his virgin bride – but it’s because of their surrend-er and submissiveness to the Lord that they are blessed. Joseph did as the Lord commanded him. Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Unlike all other religions Chris-tian faith begins at the bottom, not at the top. We go directly to the virgin Mother’s womb and embrace this infant. We see him being nursed, growing up, going about teaching and healing – and we see him dying, rising, ascending above all heavens, and having authority over all things.
So how will God use this time to sculpt us into a people to whom Jesus can come again? The challenge of Advent is to be responsive to God’s initiative – and as we obediently await the Savior’s coming, to be joyful in a world where so many dark and ugly things happen. We prayed in today’s collect that God will so purify our consciences by his daily visitation – that when his Son comes he may find in us a beautiful dwelling prepared for himself. Mary has long been the icon to whom Christians point when we want to get this right. Connect with her – and learn what it means to rejoice in being obedient to the Lord. Hail Mary, full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Deo gratias. Thanks be to God. So be it.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.