“Christmas: A Paradox of Love”*
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Advent 4 – 12/19/21
Before reading today’s passage, let’s remember the context in which these words are spoken.
A teenaged Mary learns that she will soon become the mother of a remarkable child. As the scene of the Annunciation closes, we hear Mary say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Most of us have been taught—and not without good reason—to hear Mary’s words as her humble surrender to God. When honest, we might also hear a young woman’s terrified submission to the demands of yet another male in a thoroughly patriarchal culture. In that case, Mary’s “Here I am” may sound like the gasping breath one takes before being thrown into cold water.
In no way do I want to diminish anyone’s appreciation of this part of the Christmas story. It’s just that our world and Mary’s world are profoundly different from each other. Maybe that lack of understanding makes it inevitable that we romanticize the story of the Annunciation and gloss over the breath-taking scandal inherent in it.
Think about it. The way Luke tells the story, Mary is a runaway teen. She leaves home, in haste, apparently alone, and goes to see an older relative, Elizabeth. Rather than the actions of a girl who is excited and grateful, Mary’s actions seem like those of a girl who feels overwhelmed, and not simply by an unplanned pregnancy, but by a pregnancy that has been imposed on her. She needs a loving, understanding, and non-condemning, feminine presence in her life.
In Judea, Mary falls into Elizabeth’s wise and welcoming arms. And remember, Elizabeth is experiencing her own remarkable, late-in-life pregnancy. Because of that, she represents the fertility goddesses of an era that predates Abraham. Long before the patriarchy that characterizes first-century Rome, feminine images of God were the norm. God mothered humanity into spiritual awareness and healing.
When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home, the Old Mother in Elizabeth awakens. With body, mind, and spirit fluttering to life, Elizabeth sings a song of thanksgiving. Then she utters a blessing on Mary. Only now, at this moment of mystical approval through Elizabeth, does Mary accept Gabriel’s announcement as good news. And her heart sings:
46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will
call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done
great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise
he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 146b-55)
One can almost see Elizabeth as she listens to Mary. Folding her old, thin-skinned hands in her lap, she wrinkles her brow and casts an embarrassed gaze to the floor. When Mary finishes, Elizabeth looks at the young woman with a tight-lipped, bless-your-heart smile.
Mary’s song, you see, dives into territory reserved for men like Elijah and Elisha, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Mary’s song is full-blown prophecy. And such prophecy sounds out of place on the lips of a teenaged girl. But Mary has experienced transforming visitations, first from the angel, the in Elizabeth’s words. Everywhere Mary goes, God meets her there. From morning to evening, shore to shore, Heaven to Sheol, God is there for her and for the one being knitted together in her womb. Making peace with all of this, Mary embraces Gabriel’s announcement and Elizabeth’s blessing.
As she accepts the gift, Mary speaks with clarity and authority. And like the child within her, that authority comes as a gift of grace. It comes through Mary’s willful struggle with and her willing acceptance of her call. Mary’s prophetic authority arrives in the midst of paradox.
So it is with virtually all things spiritual. Scripture is full of paradoxical proclamations: The last shall be first and the first shall be last…Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise [and] what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Mary’s prophecy is all about the paradox of faith. It’s all about God’s ongoing work to displace violent power with transforming meekness. It’s all about God’s work to reveal the dingy gloom of shiny things that we think we own, but which almost always end up owning us.
Paradox is about God’s aggravating truth that only when human beings learn to die do we begin to live.
Paradox lies at the heart of all prophecy, because virtually all prophecy says, in one way or another, that things are not what they seem. Prophetic truth declares that eternal reality is being revealed in the transient, material stuff of the Creation. Fundamentalist theism and fundamentalist a-theism cannot tolerate all the gray space of paradox. They demand that all things be exactly as they seem. Maybe that’s what allows these fraternal twins—fundamentalist theism and fundamentalist a-theism—to traffic so freely in fear and hate. When one is certain that others are wrong, one will justify almost anything to protect the very things Mary sings about: pride, power, and wealth.
Christmas, which cannot be divorced from Easter, declares the paradox of love. Christmas and Easter declare, with earth-shaking gentleness, the enduring mystery of grace. There is no such thing as earning or escaping the love of God. At Christmas, the true wealth and wisdom of the ages is born to a poor, uneducated, teenaged girl.
Well-to-do, First-World Christians have tried to undo the scandalous paradox of Christmas by connecting it to Black Friday instead of Good Friday. In doing so, we have managed to flip the paradox in our favor. We have allowed Christmas celebrations to ignore, or even to include the material wealth and the violent power that God comes not to safeguard, but to judge. Still, even when we corrupt our observations of Christmas, Christmas itself remains, well, immaculate. As Mary’s prophecy reminds us, Christmas still delivers God’s commitment to justice for all Creation.
Here is the paradox of Love: Just as something in Mary must die before she lives into the new life stirring within her, we, too, are called to embrace, over and over, Christ’s life-renewing death. And we embrace that death by receiving with grace all that giving has to offer.
Christmas is not under the trees in our homes. It’s under those trees out there, and in those wide-open spaces. It’s in classrooms and cubicles. It’s in alleys, and hollers, and barns.
I do wish a Merry Christmas to you. And even more so, I wish to all the world a Merry Christmas through you.
*This is the sermon I had prepared for Advent 4, 2021. Because of a health issue, I didn’t get to preach it. I’m sharing it anyway. AH