December 14, 1997

Byron C. Bangert

Isaiah 61:10-11; Luke 1:26-45

Next Sunday evening a group of us from the church will go Christmas caroling to our homebound members. It is something I have done every year since I have been here. I go for at least two or three reasons. One is that I enjoy singing many of the familiar and some of the not-so-familiar carols. Another is that our efforts are clearly enjoyed by most of the people we visit. A third is that this is one way to keep in touch with persons I may not see on a regular basis.

The carols we sing are printed in the little dog-eared songbooks we carry with us. We usually sing the more familiar ones, including some that are secular. One of these is "Deck the Halls". I like "Deck the Halls" with all its "fa-la-las". But sometimes, when we are caroling in a sickroom or to someone who is mainly confined to bed, I have a strange feeling that maybe a song like this is out of place. "Deck the halls with boughs of holly, 'Tis the season to be jolly" expresses a mood that would seem to be beyond the reach of some of those to whom we sing. I have never noticed any objection. It's just a thought that goes through my mind as we sing to someone for whom life is obviously hard.

The truth is that sometimes "jolliness" is also out of reach for me. Oftentimes, as a matter of fact. The truth is that I often have this feeling that we try to make too much of Christmas. Our expectations are too high, our efforts too great. I was reading somewhere this past week a commentary on our holiday celebrations that asked, "Why do we think this Christmas needs to be the best ever?" "Why do we think we need to give, or receive, even better presents this year than last?" Obviously, it is too much to ask. You can hardly get through December without reading some newspaper article quoting some family counselor or psychologist advising us not to over-do it during the holidays. Do not over-do the expectations. Do not over-do the attempts to wring every ounce of celebration out of your special activities and events. The holidays are high-stress times and we need to keep things manageable and under control.

So there are times when I would like to advocate a minimalist Christmas, with the church leading the way. Let's see how much we can simplify our Christmas observances! Let's see how much we can cut back on what we schedule and plan and do. Instead of trying to make every Christmas event bigger and better than ever, let's see if we cannot just let Christmas be.

But then what are we to do with texts like those we have read this morning? After all, we are in a season of expectation. Christmas is a season of joy. In Isaiah the prophet says, "I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation." It is texts like this that get us into trouble. If the promise of God's coming deliverance can move the Old Testament prophet to exult in his whole being, then why not us? How can we be anything less than joyful over the good news we celebrate at Christmas time?

Or consider the story of Mary. The angel Gabriel tells her that she has found favor with God, and that she will be the mother of Jesus. Following this startling visitation, Mary goes with haste to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is by now six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Upon hearing Mary's greeting to Elizabeth, her child leaps for joy in her womb. If a six-moth old fetus knows enough to be joyful in response to the good news that Mary bears, surely we can be no less!

What we sometimes fail to see in all the biblical texts and stories of this season is that the celebration and the joy are not the result of any human accomplishment. In Isaiah it is God who is preparing to deliver Israel. In the story of Mary, it is God whose messenger brings the good news, and it is God whose Spirit will accomplish the conception of the child, and it is God whose Spirit fills Elizabeth and moves her to exclaim, "Blessed are you among women." Basically, Mary does not do anything in this story except go and visit her relative Elizabeth after the angel's visitation. And yet, clearly, Mary is being portrayed and presented to us by Luke as exemplary. She is not exemplary because of what she has accomplished, however. Nor is she exemplary because of her family. Joseph is the one with the distinguished family lineage. She is not exemplary because of her social station. She is presented as a young peasant woman of no special distinction. But Mary is exemplary nonetheless. She is exemplary because she is willing to be a servant. And she is exemplary because of her trusting faith. "Here am I," she says, "the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

No doubt there are some things we can do to prepare ourselves to make our Christmas celebrations more meaningful, perhaps even more joyful. But the deepest joy of Christmas, the experience of God-with-us, comes as a mystery, an opportunity, and a gift. We cannot make it happen. We can only hope to be ready and willing to receive it when it comes. AMEN.