Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The ‘real’ meaning of Christmas?

There have been so many articles in newspapers and magazines over the past few weeks about “the real meaning of Christmas” that I wanted to have my say, too. This is the sermon I preached at Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon Uniting Churches on the 20th of December.

Luke 1:39-56

I think that this fourth Sunday of Advent is my favourite Sunday, not only in Advent, but in the whole Christmas season. Of course, Christmas Eve, with its sense of tiptoe anticipation, is wonderful. On Christmas Day we celebrate the coming of God as a baby, and there are few things in the world more exciting than the arrival of a baby. But despite all the anticipation and joy of these days we can lose sight of the absolute unlikely wonder of what happened at Christmas. The birth of Jesus can become cute, rather than a radical overturning of everything we thought we knew. The story and the song that we hear today are different. There are many places in the community where we can hear the story of the birth in the stable, see the baby in the manger. But it’s only in churches that we hear Mary singing her song of liberation. It’s the Magnificat, and all that it implies, that makes Christmas Christian.

We have a short snippet of story today. Mary, who has just been told by the angel Gabriel that she is to bear the Son of the Most High, goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who’s also become pregnant through the astonishing intervention of God. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets her, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth welcomes Mary with words inspired by the Holy Spirit. Mary responds with her own song of prophecy.

Here in this ordinary house we have four prophets; two mothers; and two sons. Elizabeth is an old woman and her son will end the old age of the prophets. Mary is a young woman, and her son will usher in the new age of the kingdom of God among us. In adulthood, John will describe himself as unworthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. Now, in the womb, he already acknowledges Jesus’ greatness. John and Jesus’ life and ministry is ahead of them, but Elizabeth and Mary’s time is already here, now, in this meeting.

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, shows amazing prophetic insight. Mary simply greets her, and apparently Elizabeth already knows that Mary is pregnant, chosen by God, and that Mary’s child will be even greater than her own astonishing son. It’s in Elizabeth’s words that we are told for the first time in this Gospel who Jesus truly is. Gabriel told Mary that Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High and the son of God. But Elizabeth describes Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” and Lord is a title most properly used of God. Mary’s song begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord” and the Lord that Mary is extolling in that phrase is God. Elizabeth tells us that Mary’s son is not only the son of God, but is somehow himself God. Elizabeth knows, and shares with us, things about Jesus and Mary that neither Gabriel nor Luke have previously told us.

Mary is also a prophet. Her response to Elizabeth’s greeting is to sing, and she sings in the Magnificat of things already done: God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled up the hungry. And yet Mary was singing in a country under Roman occupation. The proud and powerful were very much in control. And we, who sing her song today, do so in a world in which people still die of hunger. As one commentator writes: “Either [Mary] has lost her mind, or she has been blessed with double vision”. I’m going to go with the latter. Mary is prophesying, and she is so certain, so open to the coming justice of God, that she can sing about it as though it has already happened. She’s able to see that in the approaching birth of Jesus, God’s promise for the future is already coming true. In Jesus’ birth, as in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God is defeating death and hopelessness. Mary sings, “The Mighty One has done great things for me” and in the great things that God has done for Mary, we see the great things that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do, for the entire world.

In Mary’s song, the world as we know it is overturned. We can see this in the story itself, in all the amazing prophecy that comes from two women and an unborn child. Mary and Elizabeth are meeting in Zechariah’s house, and Zechariah is a priest, a religious professional. Yet we don’t hear anything of him; and of course even if Zechariah was present he wouldn’t be able to speak, having been struck dumb by Gabriel. It’s the women, the old woman who was barren and the young one who is now pregnant despite being unmarried, whose words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s song sings of the over-turning of the power structures of this world, and the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary shows us an example of that overturning in action, in which the lowly, the barren and the young, women, peasants, people under occupation, are lifted up. What God has done for Elizabeth and Mary anticipates what God is going to do for all the lowly, the hungry, the poor and the powerless. Mary’s song assures us that this will happen, because it has already happened to her.

According to Luke, the first people to see Jesus after his birth are the shepherds, themselves also among the lowly of the world. When Jesus begins his ministry by reading in the synagogue in Nazareth he does so by reading the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed to me bring good news to the poor”. It is in this gospel of Luke that Jesus proclaims the parallel blessings and woes: “Blessed are you who are poor” but “Woe to you who are rich”. Jesus’ words echo those of his mother in her song; we can imagine that Jesus’ ministry comes not just from his Father, who anointed him to bring good news, but from his mother, who as a young girl overshadowed by the Holy Spirit was already singing with joy of God’s justice.

So often in this world when things are over-turned they are not improved. The proud are replaced by the proud and when the hungry are filled it just means that another group goes hungry. I think that’s why the rich and the full are so often afraid of change; they are scared that change will just mean that they become poor and hungry. But that’s not the message here. This is not just an exchange of top for bottom so that there’s a new top and a new bottom. Instead there is a new world, the kingdom of God, in which everyone has enough to eat, in which the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down from their thrones so that everyone is equal – brothers and sisters and the beloved children of God. This is the message of Christmas, that with the birth of Jesus we see the beginning of this new world, the coming of the kingdom, with the birth of God to an obscure family in a land under occupation. This is why Christmas is a time for our souls to magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour. So in this next week, when we’re told that Christmas is a time for love and family and friends and giving – all in themselves very good things – let’s also remember that Christmas is a time for God’s justice and the over-turning of the ways and structures of this world. Amen.

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December 24, 2009 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for this Avril. I kept thinking of Copenhagen, especially at “the rich and the full are so often afraid of change; they are scared that change will just mean that they become poor and hungry.”
    Happy New Year, xxx

    Comment by Meredith | January 1, 2010 | Reply


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