Finding the Christ in Christmas
“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” asks the Christmas song.
It is hard to say what Mary knew, though if her song tells us anything, before our Lord was any bigger than an acorn inside her womb, Mary knew things. There are some things I wish I knew, such as:
Was Mary always a poet?
Was she startled by the song
as it burst into the open,
Or had the song been stirring within,
unsung, all her life?
Was the melody as haunting,
beautiful and unsettling
as the words?
Did heaven stand still
and bend its ear to listen in?
Scholars often presume these words we find in Scripture were assigned to Mary after the fact, added by the author for effect, as it hardly seems likely a poor, uneducated, teenage girl could suddenly erupt in lyric and melody, as if on Broadway. Unlikely? Yes. It was also unlikely for a woman to conceive by the Holy Spirit. Call me superstitious but I’m inclined to believe Mary could sing spontaneously and prophetically at the prompt of her cousin’s exuberant greeting and a baby’s intrauterine leaping, if she wanted to. She seemed to have a knack for generating the improbable.
Unlikely indeed this girl from Nazareth would be the mother of our Lord. Unlikely but fitting that she would be prophet/preacher/poet/proclaimer of the Good News of the in-breaking of God into the world. She was, after all, already the vessel. How appropriate she also serve as the mouthpiece. Spokeswoman was a role she shared with her cousin Elizabeth (see v.43), who passed the prophetic gift to her son, John (poor Dad was mute), and it was these three—a post-menopause pregnant woman, an unwed soon-to-be mother, and a leaping fetus—these three who together formed a trio of proclaimers, putting Christmas into words and movement for the very first time in history.
Was anyone even there to hear them? Or were they alone, singing and leaping in the privacy of Elizabeth’s home? No matter if anyone heard. No one would have believed those outspoken, hormonal women, patting their bellies and laughing through tears. They were saying the most true thing the world would ever need to hear . . . but who would have believed them?
Even if there had been a more believable speaker, with stronger credentials, who would want to listen to such news as this? It was a complete upsetting of the natural order, this talk of scattering the proud, bringing down rulers, lifting up the humble, and sending the rich away empty.
It is challenging for us, some two thousand years removed and so nestled in to the comfort of privilege ourselves, to appreciate the shock of what this baby meant, to hear the passion of Mary’s song, to experience anew the toppling of the settled order. But every year, Advent and Christmas reintroduce us to the absurdity of the Gospel. God is coming to turn the world upside down, but God is coming, not in power and might, but in human flesh, as a tiny, helpless baby of humble origin.
To recapture this upheaval, in medieval times people observed the Feast of Fools—a comic festival where popes and bishops were “elected” for the day from among the common people and officials were expected to act like servants. Everything was flipped, and with laughter and parody and gaiety, the people dressed in costume and re-enacted the glorious and troubling reversal of Mary’s Magnificat. As you can probably imagine, sometimes the church embraced the Feast of Fools into the liturgy, and sometimes the church tried to ban the Feast of Fools as having pagan origins. Inside the church, the oddity of the incarnation magnified by topsy-turvy carnival was perhaps spot-on, and yet, could get to be too much for the tight-laced clergy.
Can you imagine what such a celebration might look like in our world today? What sort of hilarity might startle us back into awe of the incarnation?
If you’re like me, you may have received an email forward or two or perhaps a whole slew warning you about the demise of Christmas. It’s become so un-Christian, this holiday, and Christians have started warning one another, “Watch out. Don’t be fooled. Stand firm. Keep Christ in Christmas.” Now, while I don’t particularly appreciate the extra emails in my inbox, I resonate with the recognition that we really don’t get a good sense of who Jesus is when we walk into the shopping mall this time of year. Despite the holiday décor, the music, the lights, the beaming faces, and the generous, generous sales, I get this eerie sense that all of it is aimed at my pocketbook rather than my heart. It doesn’t feel worshipful to me inside the mall, unless, of course, the god is money.
So it seems sensible for Christians to ask and to want to know, “How do we put Jesus back at the heart of the season?” This thing started with him, and now he’s barely an after-thought, if he’s thought of at all. Surely, as Christians, we need to do something.
There are two basic approaches, in my view, to keeping Christmas sacred. One approach is to take all the cultural Christmas-y things: the shopping and the baking and the eating and the snowman making and the light-seeing and the movie-watching, to take all those things and insert the name of Jesus in and over them. Open presents in Jesus’ name. Make gingerbread in Jesus’ name. Shop ‘til we drop in Jesus’ name. Take family photos in Jesus’ name. Send Christmas cards in Jesus’ name. Decorate the tree in Jesus’ name.
Another approach would be to let all the cultural Christmas-y things be. Without angst, let them be what they are: a break from work, a way of being with friends and family, a time for fun and feasting, etc. Play the fool, as it were, as if there were very little you could do to bring Christ in. The catch, of course, is that the fool also believes there is very little you can do to shut Christ out. As you may remember there was no room for him in the inn, but he came away. You may remember that conception normally takes two, but he came anyway. You may remember Herod tried to eliminate baby boys entirely, but he came anyway. You may remember that they killed him, but he came back anyway. You can’t get rid of him if you wanted to.
If you allow Christmas to make a fool out of you, it will be because you believe this: Jesus will be among us—God with us, Immanuel—this Christmas. That story never changes, never dies, never quits repeating itself, no matter if it’s the whole world singing his praises or whether it’s just two pregnant women swapping stories over swollen bellies. Only a fool is willing to accept the mind-boggling, world-changing smallness of a God-baby.
If you want to find the sacredness of Christmas, perhaps you should leave the crowds, the stores, and the places of power and go looking in stables and forsaken places instead. If not literally, then go there spiritually, on the lookout for holy. Go to that unlikely place inside yourself where bitterness reigns, and look for something new to be born into it. Sit under the blanket of darkness long enough to find that one small rip in the shroud where light is just beginning to poke through. This makes Advent an adventure, like wisemen who suddenly embrace the wisdom of fools to follow a star and worship a baby. You are looking for the unexpected, for the quiet arrival of God, for subtle signs of incarnation. You’ll accomplish very little by way of reclaiming the culture for Christ, but Christ will reclaim your humble adoration. With rejoicing and laughter, you will find yourself stunned. Rather than speak your mind this Christmas, listen for angelic tidings that will tear your settled view of the world apart. A true Christian Christmas will leave you undone. Its absurdity will rattle you to your bones. The mystery of the incarnation will take you by surprise.
By all means, receive Christ like a baby into your arms. Seek Christ like a shepherd. Listen to the unbelievable promise of angels, who speak of peace and goodwill for all. But don’t expect anyone to believe your story. If God wanted to make this stuff more believable, more palatable for the public, more popular to those with power, God could have chose a different way.
As it were, God chose the insanely impractical way of entering the world as a child, as an outsider, making first appearance in a stable. There is no forcing God into the spotlight, and there is certainly no preserving his place of honor, as the cross so aptly taught us. You can only wait for God to come, and turn your eyes in the direction you least expect so as not to miss it when he does. You can be a part of that foolish remnant who patiently believes. Advent is about waiting in darkness and re-training your eyes to see anew, and if you do, you will be reintroduced to the absurdity of the Gospel yet again. May this week bring you a very Merry, very startling Christmas indeed. Amen.
Gratitude to Rachel Held Evans for her blog post, “God Can’t Be Kept Out,” which served as an inspiration for this sermon. Also, Max Harris wrote a book called Sacred Folly about the church’s use of the Feast of Fools to highlight the incarnation.