39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
These days I can’t approach Christmas without thinking back to my experience in Bethlehem, just over a year ago. Bethlehem is the town of perpetual Christmas and I suppose that’s appropriate, because as Christians, we are people of a perpetual Christmas.
But there can be a great deal of pressure at Christmas time to be jolly. And that, paradoxically, can make us very miserable. Christmas is a time for family, but you can quickly find yourself wondering who is more infuriating – your children or your parents? And Christmas is a time for the children, but what if the children are grown up and we ourselves have lost something of the magic? And what if this time is associated with a painful loss?
Well, it’s worth remembering that we celebrate Christmas at this time of the year because Christ came as a light to shine in the darkness. It is a festival of joy because Jesus comes to walk alongside us in the difficulties of life and to transform our darkness into light and our troubles into new life – something we’re embodying today as we baptise young Ollie and those symbols of light and new life are in all we do.
And that mixture of darkness and light came across to me very powerfully in my time at Bethlehem. On one hand, it was everything the Christmas carol says: a town of ancient beauty and peace, where the hopes and fears of all the years might meet. But there is also a reminder that beneath the tinsel, the reality of Jesus’ birth was far from cosy.
And so it is today. When I was there, I visited an orphanage run by local Christians. The orphanage began because they kept finding new-born babies in dustbins all over Bethlehem. They quickly found out why. These were young women giving birth out of wedlock. This was not the result of promiscuity – it’s not that kind of culture – so I leave to your imagination the kinds of scenarios that led to their pregnancies. In most cases, these poor women were the victims, yet within their culture, they and their children were likely to be stoned to death by their communities if their pregnancy came to light, hence the desperation that drove these poor women to abandon and hide their babies in this way.
And incidentally, if you ever want to see the difference that Christianity makes in humanity, Bethlehem was a great place to see it. The Palestinian Christians shared the same culture and outlook as their neighbours, but they valued life completely differently. They alone were educating disabled children and girls. And they alone seemed to care about these babies and their mothers.
So, with no resources at all, they set up an orphanage with a maternity hospital, so that the women could give birth in safety and leave their babies in a place where they could be cared for. Not a perfect solution, they were quick to tell you, but the most loving response they could find in the circumstances. It was both heartbreaking and moving to see their deeply Christian response this problem and a helpful reminder to me of our vocation as baptised Christians.
And then, after Bethlehem, we went to visit the Hill Country of Judea, to the town of Ein Karem where John the Baptist grew up and which Mary visited, from Nazareth, in the early days of her pregnancy. I had always thought of this just as a heart-warming family visit, but as I re-read this Gospel passage which we’ve just read this morning, with Bethlehem fresh in my mind, I suddenly realised something: Mary had just discovered that she was pregnant, out of wedlock. The cultural norms were the same then as they are now. She and her baby were in danger, danger of being stoned, just like those women in Bethlehem today.
So she did what countless young women have done down the years: she fled to the sanctuary of family, far away at the other end of the country, until it was safe to return under the respectability of her marriage to Joseph.
This is not the story of a heart-warming family visit. This is the same heartbreaking story that is still being played out daily. This is a family that has fallen from respectability, a family from the wrong side of the tracks, who have the shadow of shame upon them.
And yet, at the same time this is Mary, whom God chose to bear his son. No wonder she sang what she did when she poured out her song of praise to God:
“He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant;
…the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
She really identified with the lowly and the hungry. When she described herself as the Lord’s lowly servant, it was not a pious platitude, she really knew that she had sunk to the bottom, but that in the darkest hour of her dark and troubled life, the light of God was flickering away within her.
This is the character of the God who comes to us at Christmas. He is not a God of the respectable and self-righteous. He is a God who gets right down into the muck and mess of this life; a God for whom no situation is too difficult or too tragic, but he gets right in there and transforms it. This is a God of surpassing hope and mighty power, more powerful than every force for harm in this world; more powerful than the complex set of problems that led to those babies being abandoned in Bethlehem, or any of the intractable problems of human existence; more powerful than all our power to do harm; more loving than anything we could ever know, so loving that nothing can separate us from it: no amount of tragedy, no amount of trouble. This is a God who chose to come into the darkest places of our lives and to bring his light.
And those who follow this God also begin to shine with his light as those Christians in Bethlehem show and as we pray that young Ollie will and as we pray that we will.
So in these last few days of Advent, as we prepare for his coming again this Christmas, perhaps we can let his light into our lives in a new way. If we feel we’re in darkness, perhaps we can become aware of his presence, holding out that little candle of flickering hope, which somehow the darkness will not overcome. If we’re feeling the strain of forced jollity and the need to provide the perfect family Christmas, perhaps we can recover the deeper joy that really can make this a season of goodwill and peace, seeing God quietly at work to redeem the world, despite all its hopes and fears. And if we’re excited and ready to party, maybe we can allow his light to make our rejoicing all the more vivid and deep-seated.
Whatever state our lives are in, I pray that, like Mary, we might find Christ born in us today and know ourselves to be blessed.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.
Preached: – Askham 23 December 2018, fourth Sunday of Advent