Considered one of the most beloved songs of all time is Bing Crosby’s, “White Christmas.” It’s not just a Christmas favorite, it ranks among the top selling songs of all time – both Christmas and non-Christmas songs considered.
You know the song, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten and children listen, to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
This song is just one example of the many Christmas songs, poems, and stories that lead us to dream of the perfect Christmas. Here’s my Perfect Christmas mash-up:
“Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. // How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. // Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright. // The cattle are lowing The poor Baby wakes But little Lord Jesus No crying He makes // All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning, O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored. // so Just have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight. // Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, In the lane, snow is glistening A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight. Walking in a winter wonderland. // and you know, I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents under the tree. // Through the years We all will be together, If the Fates allow, Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself A merry little Christmas now.”
We paint for ourselves this perfect picture of what we want, and perhaps even what we expect in this season of Advent – in preparation for Christmas day. And why should we not expect such a perfect night? That is the scene that has been promised for us.
Look at the nativity – it sets this scene – this entrance of Christ into the world. It is offered as such a Hallmark moment. The mother Mary, kneeling before the crib – the father Joseph, standing watch over them both – the animals, quietly kneeling in the room. The beautiful angel watches overhead and calls out to the shepherds to come and see the child. The wisemen are there to offer gifts to the new king. It’s set up as such a serene moment. And as such a beautiful moment, it begs for us to want the same.
The portrait of the ideal entrance of Christ into the world causes us to yearn for that same still quiet to be present in our lives. The sheep and the cows being in the right place, striking the right pose – they beg us to have each decoration so brilliantly presented around the house, each ornament on the right branch. The shepherds (the unlikeliest of visitors) call for us to dream of distant relatives and friends to be present with us to celebrate the special holiday. The wisemen bringing the gifts appeal to us as we too yearn for those magnificent and perfect gifts. And the still quiet baby, no crying he makes – and the peaceful mother having just given birth – they encourage us to believe that the chaos need not be present in the midst of what is anticipated to be a chaotic time.
If we’re honest with ourselves and each other – this serene scene offers us hope that our Christmas celebration may be just as peaceful.
And I don’t want to ruin that peaceful dream. I understand why we years for such a peaceful day. This season of Advent is the closing out of the calendar year, 2015. In this time of year we are looking back and reflecting on all that has taken place this year. And while there were many good times – it is not often the good times we think of first.
We reflect back on the loved ones we have lost this year. There are many, even here in this room, and certainly in the extended community of this church, who will be dining on Christmas day with an empty seat at the table. For some that is because a loved one has gone on to life eternal since last Christmas. For some, that empty seat represents a divorce or a broken relationship. For others, that chair represents a child-turned-adult having decided to celebrate Christmas with a new significant other or a new spouse. While we may celebrate the new beginnings of the past year, new beginnings also mean the ending of a previous chapter.
In this closing season of the year, we also are reflective of what has happened in our lives in the past year. We think back to hospital visits, surgeries, and illnesses. We reflect on job transfers, job losses, and work-place difficulties. We think about our own brokenness, and wonder about those missed opportunities, and there we have flooding in our minds our regrets for things unsaid or misspoken.
In the midst of our personal reflection on the year, we also reflect on the world events of the past year. We think about the brokenness of our society – of our world. We reflect on civil wars, religious extremism, racism, and systematic injustice.
And in the midst of our recollection of all that has brought tears to God this year, we yearn for something that is nice, quaint, peaceful, and serene.
And were this peaceful scene a true representation of God’s work in the world, I would encourage you to spend yourself dry emotionally, physically, and financially to make such a perfect dream comes true for you. But I am all the more convinced today after the events of the past week that our hoping for such a tranquil Christmas is only pushing us and this world further from the call of God, and that God is yearning for the faithful to wake up to God’s call on our lives to bring about a miracle of transformation in the world today.
The reality is that in the midst of our yearning for peace in this season, “Our Christmas traditions [have] sanitized Jesus’ birth narrative by removing the event from its biblical and historical context.”[i] By doing so, we have lost the real understanding of God’s miracle in the birth of Christ.
So let us then consider what the true biblical narrative has to offer us about how we can still have hope and celebrate the birth of Christ, even if it doesn’t fit so nicely under the tree.
In Luke 1, leading up to our scripture today where Mary hears from the angel Gabriel, we find out that Gabriel has made himself known to Zechariah, and promised Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth a son. Their son is to be named John, and he will be a precursor to Jesus – he will be the one to prepare the way for Christ. Elizabeth is elder, and thought to be barren. As our text begins today, it says, ‘In the sixth month;’ this is referring to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, when Elizabeth is six month’s pregnant, Gabriel appears to Mary in the region of Galilee, in a town called Nazareth.
It is here, even at the start of this story, that we begin to see the breakdown in the fairy-tale Christmas. Mary is described as a virgin who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. Mary is known to be a teenage girl who has been offered by her father in marriage through a customary business deal. Mary is in her early teens – 12 to 15 years old – and, as was customary of the time, she was not educated; her likely track in life was to bear and raise children and to care for the home.
Into the presence of this young girl appears this angel named Gabriel. Wasting little time, Gabriel speaks to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
Get this image in your head – to this young female, alone in Nazareth – a blue-collar town in the region of Galilee – out of nowhere appears some form of a celestial body. Rightfully, the text tells us Mary is perplexed – likely both due to his presence and his words. First – who is this man, and where did he come from. Second – who is this man that speaks as if he is speaking directly for God?
Gabriel notices her fear and says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Gabriel goes on to say how great her son will be, ‘He will be great … called the Son of the Most High. … He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This celestial being not only seems to think he can speak on behalf of God – but now he says her name – he calls her Mary – and then he says she’s going to conceive a child in her womb!
Of all the questions that may be going through her mind, like: “Where did this guy come from?” “How does he know my name?” “How am I going to explain to my parents that I’m pregnant?” or “How do I explain to Joseph, to whom I’ve been promised, that I’m pregnant?”
Not to mention any fear she may have felt about what was about to happen to her – she knows there are laws about what would happen to her if it were found out she was pregnant out of wedlock. She could killed or at minimum brutally stoned and left to fend for herself and child the rest of her life.
Yet, in the midst of this moment – in the midst of whatever emotional grief she must have been feeling, her response to Gabriel (perhaps rightly) shows no concern for the theological foundations or eternal implications of this son promised to her who will reign forever … she asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Your son will be holy, he will be called the Son of God.”
Gabriel goes on, offering news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This note is offered perhaps as a sign of proof for Mary to know that what Gabriel speaks is truth.
We may find it easy to believe how calm Mary’s response seems because we know how the story ends. But the response of Mary is nothing short of a miracle. She speaks, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary becomes a prophet of God. In offering her willingness to be a servant of God, she becomes the bearer of God’s Word – Christ becomes her oracle, the Word made flesh. She brings the Son of God into the world.
But again, the path ahead for her is not path of peace and tranquility. As if the donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem wasn’t miserable enough, she arrives in Bethlehem only to give birth to the Son of God in an animal’s pen. That night was, as one song appropriately puts it, ‘not a silent night.’ No nurse, no midwife, no painkillers; she struggled to bring into the world a newborn in the most unsanitary of locations. She wraps her newborn child in ragged and unclean cloths. The infant is laid in a manger – an animal’s feeding trough, which had most certainly not been cleaned – more likely it was dumped out to offer the child a place to lay down. Around Mary, Joseph, and the newborn are the animals and everything that comes with animals in their stalls. It’s a messy place – no one has cleaned up the animals mess to prepare for the holy family. And with the mess comes all forms of unspeakable insects and bacterium.
The path of birth for Jesus was not clean or serene. And we know that the path of his life will be no walk in the park either. He will, at a young age, be sentenced to death. And less we think Mary’s life is all peaches and cream, we know that as her son breathed his last, she was standing at his feet watching through her tears.
The testimony of the true Christmas story provides a deep cutting truth into the lives of us who yearn for the pristine experience of the birth of Christ. God did not send his Son into the world to offer us a comfy opportunity to celebrate the receiving and giving of gifts. The yearning for the perfect Christmas – or the larger picture of a perfect life – is not one that is designed or ordained by God.
God’s miracle in Christ was born in the midst of a very compromised story. Jung Young Lee, Professor of Systematic Theology at Drew University, offers, “Jesus was born to a marginal person. He was conceived by Mary when she was unwed … While the birth of Jesus to Mary was divinely justified, it was nevertheless socially condemned. Jesus, as well as his parents, was marginalized from the time of his conception.” [ii]
If we are waiting on the perfect life to come to us, we are missing out on the call of God and the impetus we are called to celebrate in this season as we anticipate the gift of the Christ child.
Perhaps the NY Daily News offered the words best this past week following the shooting in San Bernardino, “God isn’t fixing this.” I disagree with them, I think God is trying very hard to fix this – but I think there’s validity in their logic. Even as a people who believe in the miraculous nature of God and God’s ability to answer prayer, we have moved further and further away from the desire to be involved in anything that disrupts the perfect lives we yearn to build for ourselves. When we refuse to be a part of God’s messy work of transformation, we have failed to understand the entire reason we have to celebrate in this season of Advent in preparation of the birth of Christ.
It’s time we yielded our goals of perfection – be it the perfect celebration with family on Christmas, or the seeking of perfection for each of our individual lives. The work of God in the world is messy – it calls for the sacrifice of the desirable that we may be a part of God’s work in offering love and life in and to the undesirable. Giving up on perfection means not keeping our hands clean by simply sharing our thoughts and prayers while others lives are senselessly being taken from them. Giving up on perfection means skipping out on the perfect meal to ensure someone else may have a meal. Giving up on perfection means sacrificing the purchasing of gifts in order to offer a warm bed or a token of appreciation and love to someone outside your inner circle. Giving up on perfection means saying yes to God in the midst of fear, in the midst of not fully-understanding, in the midst of what seems to be chaos.
Mary is not just a blessed witness of God’s love because she brought Christ into the world – Mary is an “ideal role model for all followers of Jesus” because she is “a servant of God who embodies faith and faithfulness.”[iii] She allowed her life to be disrupted to be a part of God’s plan to bring about healing, transformation, and salvation to the world.
This season, we remember and we celebrate God’s faithfulness, and we see the faithfulness of Mary as a living example for Christ. Mary taught her son in her living witness that following God, even in the hard times and chaos of life, is the right and faithful response. She was Christ’s example; Christ was ours. May our lives be living testimonies that even in the imperfect, God’s light still reigns in this world. May God’s light reign in your life and in your witness. Amen.