Texts: “Our deepest fear” by Marianne Williamson * Luke 1:46-56 (Mary’s song)
“Christmas comes but once a year,” or so goes an old saying that encourages us to celebrate it with abandon. But when I was a child, I came to the happy realization there was more than one Christmas each December. First came Christmas morning with brothers and sisters. This was followed by a trip to the farm for Christmas with cousins at Grandpa and Grandma Kellogg’s, which was then capped by a third Christmas meal and gift exchange at Grandma and Grandpa Rutherford’s.
On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if “once a year” overstates the frequency with which Christmas comes. It depends on how one defines Christmas.
Christmas is more of a secular than a spiritual holiday. Last year on the fourth Sunday in Advent, I wondered if the church should give up the struggle and surrender Christmas entirely to the culture in the same way it has surrendered Halloween and Mardi Gras. The Roman Church created Christmas in the Fourth Century by grafting it onto pagan festivals that marked the Winter Solstice. Perhaps we should complete the circle and give the holiday over entirely to Santa Claus, Boxing Week, and Hallmark rom-coms and just be done with it.
Happily, I doubt this will happen any time soon. Christmas contains too many spiritual gifts for us to let it go even if these gifts sometimes get buried under tinsel, pop songs, and candy. Like Easter, Christmas has the power to transform spirits, stir souls, and change the world. For this reason, many of us combine the secular delights of Christmas with worship services in Advent and on Christmas Eve.
This year, COVID-19 has upended the secular side of Christmas. Why go to the mall when retail space is restricted to 15% of capacity? Why dream of Christmas romance when you can’t meet someone at a restaurant, take in a movie, or attend a concert? Why fill the larder with seasonal treats when families are not allowed to gather around the dining room table? Why celebrate good cheer and glad tidings when so many have died, so many are sick, and so many are afraid of getting sick?
And yet we do celebrate, even this year.
This morning, we completed the first chapter of Luke with Mary’s song of love and justice. In it, Mary suggests that Christmas is about hope for a world in which the mighty have been thrown off their thrones and the poor have been raised up. But I wonder if Mary’s words convey the sense that the work of justice is Christ’s alone with us as mere bystanders.
In contrast to this sense, we also heard a famous poem by American spiritual leader Marianne Williamson. Her poem might suggest that the work of justice is dependent on us as well for we are also children of God.
My approach to Christmas lies somewhere in between. Mary gives birth to Jesus, who will be revealed as the Christ on the Road to Jerusalem; and traditionally, the church has taught there is only one Christ. In contrast, Williamson reminds us that all humans are sacred. Everyone can be seen as a child of God.
The Christmas stories are about the birth of one particular child. But the resurrection of Christ is a spiritual supernovae that bursts to life within the heart of every pilgrim on the Way. Christ lives in you, and me, and everyone we meet, which is one way of hearing the beautiful optimism of Williamson’s poem.
Luke’s first chapter is about the preparation of Mary for the birth of her first child. In revisiting this story each Advent, we prepare not just for soulful celebrations of light in the darkness, bounty in the midst of poverty, and joy in the midst of pain. We also prepare for the rebirth of Christ’s love in our own hearts. In this sense, Christmas is another Easter, and Easter is another Christmas.
In the calendar, Christmas and Easter do come just once per year. But those who stumble into the Grace to touch the Sacred within and beyond themselves may experience a thousand Christmases in any given year. Others of us who struggle to maintain self-respect in families that are twisted in the normal way that families are twisted and who despair about the possibility of greater peace with justice in a world with too much violence, disease, and irrationality — we might only experience a rebirth of Christmas love once or twice in our entire lifetime.
Still, the possibility is always there – every Easter, every Christmas, every moment. Love wants to be born in us no matter how easy or difficult the moment appears. The offer is always on the table; and this year as in past ones, Advent preparations provide us with a chance to be reborn this Christmas despite all the difficulty and pain that birth entails.
Here is how one of my favourite mentors, the Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes of Chicago, put it in a poem based upon Mary’s song that he circulated this past Friday.
“Mary. She’s no innocent naïf, angel-stunned, and subservient child:
she’s young, yes, and humble, and ignorant of the outcome—
but she knows what she’s doing.
She’s heard Gabriel, heard God in her flesh,
dared to trust the incendiary power of ordinary lives,
and to believe the Divine in her.
She’s seized her power to choose,
to be an agent of God’s re-ordering of the world—
and said Yes. Yes to all of that.
Yes not just to having a baby,
not just to bearing grace and birthing love,
but also to raising a son, nursing his imagination,
teaching him, showing him, and preparing him
for what she knows he can do.
She takes it on.
And so she also takes on the Empire,
the toppling of thrones, the lifting of the lowly,
the great reversal of evil itself.
Mary. Mighty woman. Dangerous Lover.
Divine womb. Mother of God.
Adore her, not on sweet cards but on protest banners.
Not with pallid piety, but in the streets.
Praise her in the raising of children baptized with Spirit and fire,
in the heavenly upheaval in your own flesh and soul,
and in the Divine presence in your plain, powerful life.
Adore her. Learn at her feet.
Be her child.”
May it be so. Amen.