Monday, December 18, 2017

It's Not Christmas...Yet

Last night, my religiosity got the better of me. Having seen one too many colleagues advertise on Facebook that next Sunday they will have Christmas Eve services in both the morning and the evening, I made a cranky comment about Christmas Eve not starting until after the Fourth Sunday of Advent has finished. I wish I could tell you that it was because I wanted to honor the commitment of our Altar Guild and Flower Guild who will have to spring into action as soon as the 10:30am service is over and transform our church from the austere purple of Advent into the resplendent white of Christmas. I wish I could tell you that I was thinking of the organist and the choir, who will play and sing their usual, full Sunday-morning routine before coming back to do it all over again in the evening. In fact, the only thing I had in mind was that rules are rules, and the rules in our church say that you can't dispense with a Sunday morning's observance simply because it doesn't suit your congregation's calendar. (Just think how ridiculous your Advent wreath would have looked this year if it only had three candles in it!)

Actually, there's a better reason than my fastidious grumpiness to hold off on celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas time, but we have to travel back in time nine months to see it. This Sunday, when we observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we will rewind the calendar to March and hear the story of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing to her that she would bear a son. Every year during Advent, we spend one week hearing about Jesus and the end of the world and two weeks hearing about John the Baptist and the message of repentance. Only in the fourth week do we hear anything about the nativity. And what we hear this year is actually the heart of the Christmas story. In fact, if you pay careful attention to that story, you'll discover that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is as much an accident of what is proclaimed to Mary by the angel and again by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth in the Magnificat as it is its own moment in salvation history.

Of course, God is with us, active in our lives, all the time. But the moment when God reached down from heaven and intervened in the course of human history didn't happen in Bethlehem but nine months earlier, back in Nazareth. That's where the Christmas story is set in motion. That's where our annual celebration at the manger gets its meaning. We would never know to make the journey to the stable behind the inn where there is no room unless Mary found room in her womb for God. And our journey to Christmas loses its focus if we don't stop to hear the story of the Annunciation first.

The angel doesn't show up simply to give Mary a baby. Mary doesn't need one of those. She's not even married yet. This miracle birth is about something much bigger than a bundle of joy. It's about God reaching down and changing things from the way they have been to the way God dreams they might be. It's a reset switch. It's a reboot for human history. It's God showing up to a young woman, barely old enough to have a baby, and using that ordinary person in an ordinary circumstance with no particular claim to power to reverse the course of history.

In some congregations, the Magnificat was read/proclaimed yesterday. We've reserved it for this week since it seems to be Mary's response to what God has done for her and for the world in the Annunciation/impregnation that occurs in Sunday's gospel lesson. These are her words about what God has already done by choosing her to be the vessel through which God's salvation enters the world: "[God] has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty." This is what Christmas is supposed to be about--not presents (that belongs in Epiphany) but the reordering of power. Those who have always had it are stripped of it, and those who never imagined that they would be on the side of power find that God has aligned himself with them. Can we afford to make it to Bethlehem without first hearing this proclamation? What would Christmas be without the Annunciation?

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