Texts: “Don’t hesitate,” a poem by Mary Oliver * Luke 1:26-45 (“the birth of Jesus foretold)
Christmas is about simple joys. Every December, we gather with family and friends for festive meals, the exchange of gifts, and heartfelt wishes for merriment and a happy new year. We light candles and string colourful lights to brighten the dark nights of the winter solstice; and we sing traditional songs of comfort and joy that fit with soulful decorations of trees and boughs of holly. These are some of our expectations for Christmas, and who among us doesn’t love them?
Unfortunately, when you add church to this mix, things can get more complicated.
You may have heard that the imperial church of the Fourth Century grafted Christmas on top of an ancient Roman winter solstice celebration called Saturnalia.
Most human societies have marked the winter solstice — that point when the least sunlight reaches the northern hemisphere. Many of them are festivals of light and warmth in the darkness and cold of the start of winter. The solstice, which comes to Edmonton next Saturday at 9:20 pm, is a logical place to end one solar year and start another one even though in our calendar New Year’s Eve falls anywhere from eight to 11 days after the solstice.
As the sun seems to come to a standstill and the days finally begin to lengthen, we are reminded that another year has passed. And so we may pause to reflect on the year past and look toward another spring, even though we know that the coldest days of the year still lie ahead.
The return of light at the solstice can give rise to feelings of mystery and awe; and so, we gather to give thanks and to look with hope to the year ahead; and in the case of this Christmas and New Year’s, we look back to a decade now passing and toward the twenties, which are about to begin.
Seventeen hundred years ago, the newly established imperial church of Rome re-purposed a Roman solstice festival called Saturnalia to serve as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Two of the four gospel narratives include tales of his birth; and even though the quite different tales found in Matthew and Luke make no mention of the time of year in which they are set, the church combined the two stories into one and celebrated them on the cusp of the New Year.
In the centuries since, hundreds of other fanciful Christmas stories have been told — tales of a jolly old elf, of flying reindeer, of dancing snowmen, and of Grinches, Scrooges, and ghosts – tales that may be only tangentially related to those about the birth of Jesus.
I don’t view the tales of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew and Luke as history any more than the stories that have followed them. And although Christmas was supposed to replace Saturnalia, today the vast superstructure of Christmas hews closer to Yule, Saturnalia, and Boxing Day than it does to the good news of Jesus as the Christ.
But despite how far Christmas may have wandered from Matthew and Luke, this doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t revisit their stories each December to see what they might inspire in our hearts and minds as another year fades and a new one approaches; and my reflection today is no different.
In today’s reading from Luke, a girl named Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she will become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son to be called Jehovah the Salvation, or Jesus. Gabriel also tells her that Jesus will be the only begotten son of God and a successor to King David whose reign will never end! Finally, Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid.
Have you ever noticed that when an angel in a biblical story tells someone to be not afraid, it is a sign that there is much they might fear? For Mary, those fears would not only include the fantastical idea that her miraculously conceived son will be both divine and royal, but also that she might become an unwed mother in a society in which that status is both shameful and dangerous.
But unlike her cousin Zechariah who questioned Gabriel when the angel told him of impending parenthood for him and his aged wife Elizabeth, and which is a story we heard two weeks ago, Mary humbly accepts the angel’s words. She says she will submit to God’s will no matter how outlandish Gabriel’s news might sound.
Mary then sets off to see Elizabeth and Zechariah, perhaps to check if Gabriel’s news that Elizabeth is also miraculously with child is true.
Elizabeth is overjoyed when her teen-aged cousin greets her. So is her about-to-born son, John the Baptist, who even in utero seems to sense the significance of Mary’s status as the girl who will become the mother of Jesus.
But I wonder if joy is an appropriate response. Both Elizabeth and Mary are in trouble, are they not? Both are about to give birth in occupied Palestine under the iron rule of Rome; and both are poor peasants with all the implications for disease, oppression, and suffering that this status implies.
Then there are their respective ages. Luke doesn’t say exactly how old Elizabeth is; he just notes that she is infertile and aged. But no matter her exact age, the pregnancies of older women come with greater physical risks than those of younger women.
As for Mary, the risks for her pregnancy are more social than physical. Will her intended Joseph go through with their wedding even though the child she is carrying will not be his? What will the neighbours say?
Finally, there are the fates that await both miraculous children. Luke tells us that John the Baptist is beheaded by the authorities shortly after her baptizes his cousin Jesus in the River Jordan. Elizabeth and Zechariah may be dead when this dreadful fate befalls their son, but Luke doesn’t say.
Luke does say that Mary is alive when her child Jesus is crucified; and she hears an allusion to this cruel fate right from the start. Eight days after the birth of Jesus, Luke writes that Mary and Joseph take him in the Temple in Jerusalem. There, a prophet named Samuel warns Mary that her child will be “a sword that will pierce her soul.”
Matthew’s birth story of Jesus is even more dire. Instead of having Mary, Joseph, and Jesus head to Jerusalem, Matthew writes that the Holy Family flee Bethlehem for Egypt where they live for several years as refugees in the face of a murderous campaign of King Herod’s.
Despite all this, Elizabeth and Mary express joy at their impending parenthood. And I suppose that any pregnancy, even in dire circumstances, could be a source of joy. No mother gives birth in ideal circumstances. And all births come with risks. As a popular saying goes: “Becoming a parent is like having your heart forever go walking outside your body.”
Given their circumstances, Elizabeth and Mary could be worried sick about the prospect of becoming parents. But instead, they feel excitement and greet one another with joy.
Perhaps they remember the amazing resilience all humans possess and which, with Grace, we often rely upon in times of challenge and change.
Life is often not simple, and its complications can involve loss and pain. But even in loss, sometimes we cope and even thrive. There may be much we regret about the history of humanity and perhaps our own lives. But despite sickness and war, we often find ways to continue to care for and love one another.
Mary’s Oliver’s poem “Don’t Hesitate” reminds us of life’s difficulties. She writes that “plenty of lives and whole towns are destroyed . . . [and] we are often not kind. . . Still, [she continues,] life has some possibility left . . . [which] we notice best in the instant when love begins.” As so, like Mary and Elizabeth, we may suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy; and like them, I hope we can give in to it.
Our children go into the world taking our heart’s love with them, and things sometimes do not unfold in the ways we want. But we can trust that at moments of depth and grace we can touch the deliverance and healing revealed in improbable stories like the ones we tell at Christmas.
At Christmas, we anticipate simple joys; and I hope that this Christmas we will experience many of these.
But as biblical stories and our own lives remind us, life has more to it than simple joys. So I also pray that this Christmas we also will stay in touch with the complicated joys that we can embrace in all of life’s ups and downs no matter the season.
May it be so. Amen.