Christmas is just a few days away, and I’m beginning to think about it a lot. And isn’t it interesting that when we think of Christmas, our images are old images, not contemporary ones. When we think of Christmas, we never think of a new Hummer shifting into four-wheel-drive to slice through the snow. We think of a sleigh, going over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house. We don’t think of a high-tech artificial tree with LED lights – even though we may own one – we think of a fresh-cut tree, probably being dragged by that same sleigh.
And the music. Nobody wants to hear Brenda Lee singing “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” or – heaven forbid – Alvin and the Chipmunks. Can you imagine the uproar if that’s what we sang on Christmas Eve in church? No, we want to hear the old stuff – the stuff that holds no interest at all in other times of the year, but that’s what we crave at Christmas. Songs about a silent night, about a bleak mid-winter long long ago, about a little town of
about what came on a midnight clear, about singing angels and joy to the world,
about coming together to adore him. That’s what we long to hear. Bethlehem
And when I think about Christmas, I always think about my childhood, about being with my parents and sister around the Christmas tree. My parents, now long gone, are young and I see them so clearly. I remember all the Christmases of my childhood, even the ones that were hard, when my father didn’t have a job and we didn’t have much – even those I remember with fondness because we were together and love was there.
My Christmas memories are always warm and safe and filled with love.
That is a true and accurate picture of what Christmas is about. It’s just not a complete picture. Because you see Christmas is also a radical time of unexpected change, a new light coming into our dark world. Like throwing the curtains open in a dark room, letting the bright and temporarily blinding sunlight stream in. Disorienting, maybe dangerous, breath-taking.
And we capture a glimpse of this radical God when we consider a young teenager named Mary. You see, for Mary that first Christmas season was anything but warm and filled with comforting memories. This was a time for Mary that was not safe, but dangerous and challenging.
|... how would you like this guy with big wings|
to suddenly plop down, uninvited,
in your bedroom?
One of my favorite paintings, The Annunciation by Botticelli -- which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – helps me to grasp a little of the drama and Mary’s shock, as the angel Gabriel breaks the news to her (Luke 1:26-38). Look at Gabriel. His robes are fluffed out, as if he’s just come in for a landing. Mary looks as if she has been reading at a book stand, and her shock is obvious. I mean, how would you like this guy with big wings to suddenly plop down, uninvited, in your bedroom?
Even as she draws away in fear or confusion, Gabriel looks directly at her, his mouth open to address her. And, my oh my, what an address he has for her. God is getting ready to transform the whole world, and he’s going to start it all inside Mary’s body.
What must Mary be thinking? Probably no more than 14 years old, in her home in the small off-the-beaten-track town of Nazareth. And yet in her response to the angel’s radical proposition, Mary teaches us a great deal about why she is the greatest saint, and she tells us a lot about living our own lives of faith.
Two characteristics of Mary always strike me. Actually there’s only one, but for now let’s say two. The first is her courage. It’s revealed not so much in what she says, but what she doesn’t say – the questions she doesn’t ask Gabriel.
Why me? What will happen to me? Won’t my fiancé Joseph dump me now? Won’t I be the disgrace of the town? What will people think? Do you think they might stone me? Will anybody believe my story? Will this hurt? Will I survive this? Surely, don’t you think you should pick someone else? Mary doesn’t ask any of these questions. She says instead, Yes: here am I, the servant of the Lord.
Even in her fear, Mary says Yes. You see, courage isn’t not being afraid. Courage is not letting your fear stop you from saying, “Yes.”
The second – and crucial -- attribute of Mary is that everything she does points to God, not herself. And in fact, this is precisely where Mary’s courage comes from. Mary does not go around boasting of her special honor, flaunting her unique role in history. She could have done that. But no, she says, “My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord.” If anyone in history was justified in pride, it would be Mary, singled out for the greatest honor ever given to a human. But No, she says, “My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord.” When you look at me, Mary is saying, you’re going to see a life that points in every way to the glory of God, to him alone. Too often our lives magnify ourselves. Oh yes, we may say that God is sovereign, that he is the Lord of our lives. The problem for us is that we only do that part of the time. Too often we say by our actions that we are the ones who are sovereign, we’re gonna do it our way, we don’t need to listen to anyone else, not even God. But Mary says that her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. She knows full well that ALL her special courage comes from God and nowhere else!
We need Mary’s focus on God, because the message about Christ is still radical, challenging and breath-taking. God challenges us today – like he did Mary – to get out of our comfort zone, way out of our comfort zone. He challenges us to keep following that little baby that Mary brought into the world – and that means being vehicles of his healing and restoration and rescue and reconciliation.
Maybe it seems paradoxical to you – that Christmas can be both this time of warm and tender memories and a time of challenge and radical newness. But that’s what Christmas is.The story of God breaking into the world, through Christ, should never grow comfortable and easy for us. Let’s pray that we retain that amazed and startled character of Mary over what God has done. Christmas should shake us to the core – the realization that God loves us so much that he held nothing back in his daring rescue of humanity. The story remains shocking, challenging, in-your-face – and that is exactly why it means so much this time of year. It is what gives meaning to my memories of my young parents by the Christmas tree, why I long to remember it in the timeless old songs of Christmas – this knowledge that there is an all-powerful loving God who has acted in the past, who guides my present, and who has prepared a place for my future. This God of Christmas, this God who challenged Mary, this is the God of all creation, this is my God.