It was a rookie mistake, and I made it.
I’d been serving here just a couple years, and a few weeks out from Christmas, I sat down to assemble the elements for the Christmas Eve service. To refresh my memory, I dug out the bulletins from previous Christmas Eves and noted that we always ended the services with the lighting of candles and singing of “Silent Night.”
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that. But being one who likes to change things up every now and then, I decided to craft a different order of worship. So, I moved the candle-lighting and singing of “Silent Night” to the beginning of the service. With the idea of starting small and ending big, we’d wrap things up singing the rousing verses of “Joy to the World.”
What better way, I naively thought, to give folks a spirited, uplifting sendoff to the rest of their Christmas Eve festivities. People will love it!
As it turned out, well, not so much. I’d not brought any joy to anyone’s world.
Apparently, my choice of moving the candle-lighting and singing of “Silent Night” to the head end of the service unintentionally dropped a huge lump of coal into a more than a few Christmas stockings hung by the chimney with care. People were upset with my creative change, and they surely made their feelings known.
I learned lessons the hard way: Light the candles when they’ve always been lit, and never – ever – mess with “Silent Night.”
Fast forward to 2020, and it’s now COVID-19 that’s messing with our treasured holiday traditions. Our usual family gatherings won’t be held, and in the interest of public health and safety, we won’t be holding a Christmas Eve service.
The feelings and emotions that these disruptions stir in our hearts and minds are expected and understandable. We’re sad. We’re disappointed. We’re angry. Like it or not – mostly not, we’ve been swept up in viral events beyond our control. And no one is quite sure what to make of the pandemic’s disruption to our plans and routines.
Dealing with disruption and confusion is the frustrating, uncomfortable place where Mary finds herself in our Scripture lesson for this third Sunday of Advent.
An angel has just delivered the surprising news that, like her much-older cousin Elizabeth, the unwed, teen-age Mary will bear a child. Elizabeth’s son eventually will grow to become John the Baptist. But Mary’s baby boy eventually will grow to be called Son of the Most High.
While Mary willing accepts the challenging role that God has called her to play in the drama of salvation, the puzzle of what God has in mind for her and her son is still missing a few pieces. So, Mary packs her bag and sets off to spend some time with Elizabeth. And what Mary discovers on her extended visit is breathtaking: God has called her to tend and nurture the divine dreams that God has woven into her.
Listen, now, for the Word of the Lord, midway through the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, as the evangelist sets the stage for the birth of Jesus.
In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “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.”
And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:39-56)
In the Christian tradition, the song of praise is known as The Magnificat – Latin for “magnifies,” echoing the lilting start of Mary’s lyric hymn in Luke 1, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
By all indications, the recent cosmic events into which Mary has been swept have taught her a thing or two about God and about what God has in mind for her and the world around her.
Mary is painfully aware of her lowly social status in her time and culture. As a woman, she is a piece of property as much as anything, belonging first to a father who saw her as something less valuable than a son, and then later to a husband who could divorce her at will for good reason or no reason whatsoever – an act she that herself could never initiate, no matter how unfaithfully terribly her husband treated her.
Even worse for her place in the pecking order of her day, the bucolic Mary isn’t a member of a big-city, A-list family nor does she enjoy any prospects for making her mark on the world or ever being remembered for anything special beyond a generation or two.
Yet, miraculously and startlingly, God visits her with news so stunning, so jaw-dropping, that it’ll take at least the rest of her mortal days to sort it all out and make sense of it all.
For now, though, that reversal of circumstances, that lifting up of the lowly, that exaltation of the humble, tells Mary that this is precisely how God works.
Maybe Mary remembers the Old Testament stories she heard as a youngster: Time-honored tales of God selecting the AARP-card-carrying Abram and Sarai to begin a covenant with the people; well-spun yarns about God choosing the younger, less-favored Jacob over his more highly regarded older brother Esau; head-scratching parables about God making holy use of a stuttering Moses, a vulnerable Ruth, and a baby of the family named David.
Perhaps Mary recalls how God chose to favor the feckless Israelites with their fickle faith over the mighty Babylonians with their lush hanging gardens or the impressive Egyptians with their towering pyramids.
Perchance she remembers all these things and connects all those dots with a bold, black line that leads straight to the child growing in her womb – a child so important that even her older cousin Elizabeth refers to him as “my Lord.”
Mary – little Mary, meek and mild, is bearing the Savior of the nations!
And as she ponders and treasures everything that’s happened, as she eagerly anticipates and foretells everything that’s yet to come, Mary connects a few more dots to see that those who for now in this world fancy themselves as captains of industry and masters of the universe – those with enough money to force others to kowtow to their every whim in one spectacle after another of sheer self-aggrandizement – these supposedly wealthy and powerful folks, Mary now knows, will be on the losing side of salvation history if, at the end of the cosmic day, their worldly treasure and power are their only comforts in life and in death.
The rich and famous appear to have gained the whole world, Mary might have speculated in anticipation of biting words that her own son will one day speak. But if along the way they forfeit their own souls, the high and mighty will be knocked down a peg or two and sent packing, empty as a pocket and hopeless as it gets.
“What happens to me,” Mary as much as sings in her sudden song, “is a sign of what one day will happen to all of Creation.”
Mary gets it in no uncertain terms, and Mary sees it with crystal clarity: God unconditionally loves the poor, graciously favors the disenfranchised, easily spots those whom society makes invisible.
And under the kingdom reign of that same God’s Son, all the wrongs that produce the perpetually poor and perennially marginalized will be righted. All the wrinkles of injustice with which people now suffer will be ironed out in a righteousness that landscapes the whole earth.
Mary sees it clear as day, and her heart swells with joy!
As Christmas nears, the Advent questions that are so properly challenging for all of us are these:
Do we see what Mary sees?
Do our hearts swell with equal joy?
Does that joy overflow into the lives of others?
Or, like Grinches who try to steal Christmas, do we hoard our joy and keep it all to ourselves?
It’s easy to be joyless in this world. It’s simple and almost effortless.
You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even hop on Facebook and lob out lies and negativity from the comfort of your own home. Even better, when you lack joy, you don’t have to do a blessed thing constructive or otherwise. You can just languish in your misery and joylessness.
It’s a whole lot harder to rejoice, because joy is hard. That sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, joy is joy, and joy should be easy, right?
No, not really. Because real joy is something much deeper.
Joy is something that takes root, and joy is something that remains deeply rooted – even when the winds are howling and laying waste to everything else around you. Joy is resistance against the powers of sin and evil, and that’s particularly true on the worst of days.
All too often we think of joy as a big, bodacious emotion. But joy, like a seed, starts small, and small acts cultivate joy in ourselves that spreads to others.
Mary’s Magnificat – the magnified rejoicing of God in Mary’s soul – recalls the cultivation of an ancestral promise, and Mary bears witness – in and with her very body – to a God of promise who always makes good on his Word.
With the help and direction of the Holy Spirit, we are called to proclaim the faithful promises of a faithful God to this world and its people, as the Lord writes new chapters in the story of his joyful promises in and through you and me for the hope and healing of a broken and fearful world.
That means you and I must sally forth into the world and act upon the dreams that God holds for the future of all Creation.
As we venture forth, more of our friends and neighbors come to believe that the way things are now – from pandemics to politics, from hardship to oppression, from fear to brokenness – are definitely not the ways that things are going to remain if God has anything to say about it. And God surely does!
Perhaps we’ll look back on all the disruption and change that 2020 has wrought upon our lives and see how those interruptions and disappointments actually afforded us the time and space to spy opportunities for joining Mary in magnifying the glory, grace and goodness of God in though, word and deed.
Wouldn’t it be joyfully magnificent if Christmas 2020 marks the moment when we finally connect the dots and realize that it’s OK to light small candles and sing songs of great joy in different times and places!
After all, it’s OK to mess with tradition if, in the end, the change somehow or other reveals the heavenly dreams of resurrection and reconciliation that God has woven into our hearts.
For Christ’s sake, let’s not learn that lesson the hard way.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden prepared this message for the Third Sunday of Advent, 2020. It is part of his Advent-Christmas series “Those Who Dream.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Wilda Gafney, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Emily C. Heath, and Scott Hoezee, and inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, Contours of Mary’s Dream, SanctifiedArt.org)
Related video meditation: Lighting the Third Candle of Advent
Related Advent sermons:
“Like Those Who Dream,” from Mark 13:24-37 about Jesus’s caution to “keep awake” for his return.
“Something New Begins,” from Mark 1:1-8 about “preparing the way” for Jesus to enter our lives.