When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice, saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Luke 1, 39-45
Christmas is almost upon us and as the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas are separated by just one day, I’m going to depart from two separate reflections and combine them into one. That’s also expedient, because I’m pressured for time.
It struck me just last week that the drama we now know as the first Christmas event involved a very long list of characters. Just for a moment or two, let’s examine the cast in the same way as we might go through the Dramatis Personae before launching into the study of a Shakespearean play. The following all had a role leading up to and following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem: the Angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John (the Baptist), Jesus, Simeon, Anna, Herod, along with those who had minor roles: shepherds, soldiers, an innkeeper, the Magi, Pharisees and Jewish Elders. And then there were all those who made up crowd scenes: people involved in the census, a Roman occupying force, Pharisees, Sadducees, Jews and Palestinians, Gentiles. There we have more than enough characters to make a play of five acts and numerous scenes.
In the course of what unfolded, most of those with prominent parts had their lives so shaken up that they were confronted with the possibility of very significant direction changes. Some embraced change with hesitation while others set aside a choice of living with integrity and uncertainty and, instead, opted for the comfort and security of what they knew and could manipulate to suit themselves. This latter group included Herod, a man who was seemingly so afraid of being toppled from power that he was threatened by babies, and all those guardians of religious law and orthodoxy - Pharisees, Sadducees & scribes - who used religion as a weapon of control.
In stark contrast to all these stood Mary, a mere slip of a girl on the edge of adulthood, whose faith and courage led her to utter the “yes” that took her into an unknown future, a “yes” that, in time, changed the history of the world. As Luke tells the story, Gabriel offered Mary no time to consider the proposition he put to her and no opportunity to reflect on the consequences of being asked to be a mother at a time in her life when she was only promised in marriage. In the background was Joseph, who, while expecting to be Mary’s husband, had to contend with dreams: the first in which he encountered an angel who convinced him to take Mary into his home even though he was not the father of the child she carried; the second in which he was directed to flee from the threat of violence with his new-found family into Egypt as refugees. Nobody in this drama more than Joseph had to step into darkness and uncertainty. His faith and courage shone bright as he complied with all that was asked of him.
Woven into the main plot is the sub-plot that involved Zachariah, Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon, all very elderly and all pillars of the temple. Simeon and Anna, devout to the core of their being, had lived into old age, frequenting the temple on a daily basis in the hope that one day they would encounter the long-awaited Messiah. Their faith and hope were rewarded. As they, in turn, nursed the child, they were so certain that their dreams were being fulfilled that their emotions overflowed into prophecy. We are not told the sequel to their experience, but in all likelihood their excitement would have been labelled as the ravings of the senile who had lost their minds. Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the challenges of parenthood at a time when they were more suited to being great-grandparents. Just imagine a couple of eighty-year-olds having to learn how to clean, bathe and feed a first child. Their lives had to change quickly and dramatically. As John grew, developed and turned out to be eccentric in the extreme, they must have wondered if their efforts had been in vain. They, too, had been pushed by circumstances to step out into the uncertain and the unknown.
And then there is Jesus, the central character of this great drama. He had bridged the divide between divinity and humanity and, in time, embraced all the limitations of being human - the utter dependence of infancy, the adventure of childhood, the stresses of adolescence, the trial and error of learning a trade, the fear and hesitation of launching into public preaching, the hurt and humiliation of public ridicule, the embarrassment of being branded as a heretic by the guardians of religious orthodoxy and the ultimate failure of being executed as a political criminal. Along the way he crossed over multiple social barriers: he engaged with outcasts like tax-collectors and prostitutes; he touched the lepers, the blind, the diseased and crippled; he welcomed Samaritans, Greeks and other foreigners.
In an earlier reflection this year, I referred to people in Jewish history who “had found favour with God”, and to the pain, confusion and upheaval that had come to them as a consequence of such “favour”. Remember, there were Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job and the mythical Jonah, and now, Mary and all the other lead players in this Christmas drama.
One of the main messages of Advent and Christmas is that we, too, have found favour with God. Jesus’ becoming one with humanity - the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh and blood - in an invitation to us to identify with him and to step into the unknown and the uncertain, to climb over obstacles and to cross borders in order to grow into our full potential, and to witness to the selflessness, love, generosity and forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated. That’s how we grow into being fully human.
Characters like Herod and the Jewish religious leaders were unable to move from the comfort, power and control in which they found satisfaction. As we relive the events celebrated in these final days of Advent, in the drama of Christmas and during the first weeks of the new year, we are invited to reflect on our unwillingness to cross from our comfort and false security into the new life to be discovered beyond the borders that restrict us. Just think for a moment of the restrictions we put on ourselves through our attachment to things like I-phones, tablets and laptops which block us from engaging face-to-face with family and friends in conversations that are life-giving. Reflect, too, on the hours we invest in being glued to television sets or computers as we watch football, golf, cricket or Netflix. These are the things that keep us locked in the safety of the known and prevent us from engaging with people on the edge of our society and with those strangers and refugees who have had the courage to step across the borders of the places they once called home.
Quiet reflection on the drama of this Christmas season is the entrance into opening ourselves to hearing how our God is inviting us to step beyond whatever is holding us back. To live Christmas meaningfully we will have to risk crossing boundaries, especially the ones we create for ourselves. As the African-American theologian and poet, Howard Thurman writes:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
H. Thurman, The Work of Christmas Begins