What cause do Christians have for celebration in the middle of a dark time?
"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; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
This past week an Open Letter appeared in the neighborhood newsblog in which the writer scolded other neighbors for putting Christmas light displays in their yards. This person castigated the illuminators for their insensitivity, because, in her words: “some people can’t afford to have a merry Christmas.”
It’s easy to discount this sort of obvious attention-seeking behavior, the desperate yearning to be noticed, to be seen as more sensitive and caring than “the rest of you.” And, in fact, that was my initial response: a sigh, an eye-roll, and a dismissal; just another member of the legion of sanctimonious, self-referential poopheads.
But it goes further than that.
The message reveals a terrible ignorance as well as a needy soul. My neighbor is certain that the only thing holiday lights can signify is the exchange of merchandise; she finds no cause to celebrate The Nativity if vast sums of money are not spent, if parties are not held, if all is not merry and bright according to her estimation.
She doesn’t know anything about Christmas.
But we cannot really be surprised.
We Christians have ignored the steady encroachment of commerce and the attendant erosion of The True Meaning of Christmas for long ages. In our open-hearted acceptance of God’s work in other faiths, we have failed to proclaim God’s particular work of grace in our own. It is not surprising that there are many people who think the celebration of our Lord’s birth is nothing but self-indulgent getting and spending, and that the Red Kettles of the Salvation Army are some kind of marketing campaign.
The fact that compassion and caring, giving and sharing are at the very foundation of Our Story is unknown or dismissed. The Gospel of hope and courage, of redemption and forgiveness, the Promise of a Loving Center of our Universe is unheard beneath cynical laughter and sobbing, despairing cries: “Some people can’t afford to have a merry Christmas.”
Hear the vox populi, the voice of the people — the grieving, desperate and hopeless majority who live in ignorance of the Child of Bethlehem: “Shut off your lights, surrender; the darkness has triumphed.”
We have our work cut out for us, and no mistake.
“A child born in a stable in a crummy desert town two thousand years ago; what has he to do with us?”
That’s a good question. What has Jesus to do with us — and what do we have to do with Him? We may want to begin at the beginning — not quite as far as the Encounter in the Garden, although God’s goodness and generosity certainly form the groundwork of what is to come. For these Advent hours, we can begin with a young woman called Mary.
Mary’s story, as far as we know it, may also begin in a Garden; many artists have so imagined it. That provides an interesting counter-point to the Temptation extended to Eve; Mary also faced a Tempter — the voice that whispered: “Say, ‘no!’” She could have refused the angelic summons, she could have avoided the risks and whispers of unwed motherhood, she might have succumbed to doubts and fears and abandoned or rejected the holy Child. She might, indeed, have been driven to terminate His life; such procedures have always been known.
Instead, this young woman proved herself worthy of God’s trust and confidence. She accepted the challenge with faith and hope and courage and great love. We honor this divinely chosen Lady with the name: Mother of Our Lord. Little wonder, then, that many Christians consider her a Co-Mediatrix: it is thanks to her wisdom and goodness that Jesus Christ was born and grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with others and with God.
Mary is an exemplar of motherhood, of the grace of nurturing love. In celebrating this Lady we recognize that as a holy calling, worthy of honor and respect; the foundation stone of life — a task demanding patience, compassion, commitment, resilience, and unwavering faith.
At Christmastime we celebrate Mary, and all those who bring forth, nurture, educate, inspire, and encourage God’s children. The Mother of our Lord serves also as a reminder that in our acts of love and kindness, we, too, can be Light-bearers.
Christmas is also an opportunity to shine a light on noble and courageous Joseph. This hero faced several temptations before becoming the Guardian of our Lord. Joseph was known as “a righteous man” — and therefore had to combat the Ego’s clamoring for attention, insisting on its own way.
In a society where female chastity was understood to reflect the honor of the family — and of the husband in particular, to take this woman and her Son into his home was to risk scorn and shunning, smirks and winks and sideways glances. What about his reputation for virtue, his moral superiority, his position in the community? What would people say?
Before taking action (his first impulse was “to send her away quietly”) blessed Joseph took his concerns to prayer. In a dream a holy messenger brought him divine advice and — instead of succumbing to a yearning for self-esteem or fear of the sneers of his neighbors, the genuinely righteous Joseph listened to God.
Joseph is an exemplar of fatherhood: of men who care for those entrusted to them with tenderness and love, who see their responsibility for their families as a holy calling: a summons from God. This wise, faithful, good man chose to act with courage and compassion; to hear and heed God’s voice over the shrill cries of ego and society. He sheltered and protected the Holy Light of Christ for all of us.
Imagine if all mothers and fathers lived in the light of this kind of parenting! If all who care for children genuinely cared for them, cherished them, protected them, embraced the task as a holy calling: recognizing that these are not “our” children, but on loan from God, what a different world this would be.
Long before the baby Jesus was born, the Light of Love shone forth in the hearts of Mary and Joseph. It has shimmered over the earth since the beginning, bursting forth in the souls of the prophets, illuminating the Way of peace and joy for all those who seek it — and striking the unsuspecting like a bolt of lightning. Its radiance is the Light of all people.
As Christians, we believe that this holy Light was made manifest definitively in Jesus of Nazareth, whom we proclaim Christ the Lord. In His ministry of preaching and teaching, praying and healing, scolding and forgiving, nourishing and befriending, uplifting and restoring …. He was and Is the foremost Sign of God’s lasting, limitless, great and extravagant love for us. He is the Light of the World. And we are His light-bearers.
This is our faith and our confident assurance. And we proclaim:
In Him was life,
and that life was the light of all people.
That Light shines in the darkness;
and the darkness
and will never overcome it.
May Christ’s radiance shine in you and through you,
Let the Light shine in your life and all around you!
For Unto Us a Child is Born
Handel’s Messiah - Choir of Kings College, Cambridge