Merry Christmas and enjoy Jennifer Hudson and the Soul Children of Chicago.
“Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months…” (Luke 1:56)
I love that Mary lingered with Elizabeth. She did what most of us don’t know how to do or don’t take the time to do. Mary and Elizabeth practiced a spiritual discipline in their waiting together. There was probably moments of personal solitude, likely times of conversation and eating and exercising, walking from here to there.
But they were together and they were waiting. For Elizabeth’s delivery. And to get closer to Mary’s. They were waiting to see God bring what God said would come.
I imagine that could have been a time of great turmoil and great anticipation. Any time God is at the quiet work of forming the unseen, it’s both thrilling and unbearable. You know God’s working, you sense it, but you can’t see the full product. You can only wonder if that work will look this way or that, if the fruit of God’s toil will “sleep through the night” or if you yourself will be calm or frenzied when it finally comes.
Will I be equipped? Will I fail? Can I support him through it? What good will I be to her when she needs me? How will we make it?
I don’t think we have those answers when we first want them. The answers to our questions almost never come at our desired speed. We want God to act more quickly than God does. We want to know more than we do. We want answers when all we’re faced with are more questions.
What’s the consolation? What sustains us through the quiet darknesses of the nights before. The night before Christmas. The night before a surgery. The night before a meeting. The night before a move. What helps us manage?
I think the answer is in Luke’s description. Mary and Elizabeth stayed together. So simple. They were together, befriending one another through the unseen things. They were present to one another while they waited for whatever God would do. They monitored one another’s progress, one another’s souls, one another’s care.
Perhaps the presence of others is all it boils down to at moments like those these women lived through. After all, time doesn’t move any faster. One teacher showed me that five minutes is the same whether or not you’re looking at the clock, even if it feels differently. What helps? Another person. Mary staying with Elizabeth. My friend falling into a chair in my office. The text that was a reminder that I really wasn’t alone. The prayer someone had been praying when I couldn’t reach God myself. All examples of someone staying with someone else.
May this Christmas be an opportunity for you to be present to others, and may you never feel alone. May you feel, in a good way, surrounded by grace, mercy, and all the other gifts that make life life.
“He has filled the hungry with good things but sent away the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).
God loves rich people, even though this verse wouldn’t strike the early rich readers in antiquity as an invitational one. In fact, the verse is an extremely merciful one toward the rich person. The truth about Jesus, for anyone who looks at him seriously, is that he doesn’t intend to send anyone away. Sending away is seldom his posture.
More often, people leave him. He doesn’t generally send people away. Notice that throughout his ministry he hardly said “Get away from me.” Rather than that, he brought people in. He invited people to discussion. Sometimes he was irritated, angry, and frustrated, but in those feelings, he never really put people out. He stayed with people in their stupidity, arrogance, and misdirection.
There was the young lawyer who wanted to know how to gain eternal life, the one who had mastered the commands, and who, with perhaps good pride, wanted to know “what else do you have for me to do, Jesus?” Jesus didn’t send him away. The call upon the man’s life did. He had to give up some stuff and we wonder if it was too much for him. We could say that about all the people who didn’t follow Jesus.
Mary’s song forecasts this. She says that God has filled and that God has sent away. God has provided for those who were humble or hungry. When you’re poor–which is lower than broke and much lower than “I don’t have what I want”–you’re usually hungry. You need God to provide, to make ways outta no way, to create meals when there aren’t groceries. When you’re rich, you choose what to eat.
Who does God bring closer? It’s a simple question with an unsettling answer. God pulls closer those who need, those who are without. In Mary’s language–which is poetic and musical and not to be treated in the same ways as we’d treat doctrine–that means the alternate behavior is to “send away”. But rather than God sending the rich away, I think of God, especially in the ministry of Jesus, as opening room after room for the rich. “There’s a place for you,” I see Jesus living.
As he goes after the forsaken, he opens his hand to those who have. He pursues the rejected, and he’s hospitable to the rich. Only he can do this. Not even his mother can do it perfectly, but he does. He still does. And we aim to live like him. God, during these days when Christmas is coming, grant us the ability to do what the Savior does, to go after those most put out and to be open to those may not come.
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:52)
This is not good news for rulers, at least on the surface. Usually rulers like their thrones. Yet the closer we come to the birth, the entrance, and arrival of Jesus, this is the reality: there is a new ruler. In Jesus is a new king. We have to trade kingdoms.
We have to give up our thrones, the little rickety chairs we’ve set up to compete with the new king. For some people this is an impossible choice. It’s unthinkable that life could be better. Usually people with thrones, with anything like “thrones,” don’t want to surrender them.
We think of wealthy people, powerful people, connected people, and we think that they’ll never want to trade those things. The obvious good of those resources make following the other humble king, questionable, almost unsafe, certainly unfamiliar. But this is the essential question: will you trade what you have for what comes with the new kingdom?
The other thing is that this is everyone’s question. This is a daily question for us who are already following. This is a regular reminder for us who’ve gained citizenship by God’s grace. When we’re at our best, we’re low enough to see every small throne we’ve built for some other king. And we inspect that throne under the gaze of God.
To be clear, this song’s line is a jab to the powerful, to the resourced, and to those who live such stomach-full lives that they can’t relate to a young couple struggling to raise an unexpected baby. This is a line meant to be sang in the ears of those who are so protected by systems and social structures that they undermine the singer’s throat from which it comes. “She can’t sing that and not about us! She’s irresponsible for having done what she did to be in the situation she’s in.” This is a line for them.
But for those whose daily diet is on the mercy of God, we sing these words through our own tears. We sing this line listening for our own thrones, and we pray for God’s ability to unseat those little kings in order to live only for the new, coming One.
May these words be part of our carols this week, a portion of our soul’s language as the year begins, and may be live humbly.
“My soul glorifies…” (Luke 1:46)
There is a load of material in this passage, Luke 1:46-56. A lot worth thinking through. Even more worth, simply, accepting and trying to live.
What stands out to me as I sit to write is the way these words lift up the simple human tendency to exalt some thing, to raise above oneself some deity, to worship and glorify some lord. I think Mary’s words are everybody’s words. Even if we don’t call our deity “God,” even if we’d never use the word “soul” in a sentence to describe anything other than music, we raise and exalt and glorify things.
It is often a subtle behavior, this lifting. But it is there. It’s in our schedules, in the company we keep or refuse to keep. This raising is in my own proclivity to draw and turn inward for strength when my best help comes from someone else.
Mary’s words are a kind corrective. She is not harsh here. After all, she’s singing. Her poetic lyrics themselves lift and inspire. “My soul glorifies.”
When I was a child, I sang with the Soul Children of Chicago. We would gather each week on Saturday mornings to rehearse. We’d study and, after warming up our vocal chords, practice our parts. We’d hear the band and combine with them to make music. We would sing. After a while, I’d come to expect my Saturdays to have a sound. Singing and Saturday went together. When I thought of the day, I’d think in musical terms. Singing was normal, natural.
Wednesdays became like Saturdays. During the summers and from the fall season and through the winter, we’d have the second rehearsal date and it would feel like we were filling our days and weeks with music. After a three-hour session on a Saturday morning, Wednesday night came quickly. Getting ready for a trip, practicing for a performance or a recording or a concert, my mind was given to music. My soul was too.
Those rehearsals and all those performances shaped me and my life. With all those other Soul Children, my soul was influenced, shaped, and made. I was made into a singer.
Come back to Mary’s words in her song. All those days she spent with Elizabeth impacted her. There was Mary with her kinswoman, being made into a mother. She watched this other mother through the last days of her gestation while awaiting the fulfillment of whatever God was doing. And Mary’s soul was influenced, shaped, and made. And in her words, her soul glorified.
Like the music we naturally made when we practiced first alto and second tenor, giving glory was what Mary naturally did. It wasn’t effortless. Any singer or poet or writer will tell you of the countless days behind a phrase, the long experiences underneath a line or flat or sharp. There was effort but there was also nature.
I wonder what my week would be like if I accepted that as fact. This is what my soul naturally does. Without toil, without increasing skill, without rigorous instruction or preparation or particular stress. There’s no sweat involved anymore, but nature. At this point, after these days, I commonly do this. I glorify.
So who will get my glory? Who will benefit or receive what I commonly do? What God will be for me a “Savior”? These feel like the pressing, relevant questions of the season.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her! (Luke 1:45)
It takes guts to believe in God. It takes more guts to believe that God, who exists, makes promises, and then, even more courage to believe that God makes promises to you.
After all that, to think that God would make and fulfill them! Eventually your beliefs are tested. Eventually what you’ve held close to your heart about God’s words and God’s ways are tested.
Sometimes when life tests our beliefs, those beliefs fall apart. They are too weak for real life. We find that they lack truth, that they cannot stand under the test of reality. We conclude, in a manner of speaking, that we were disillusioned to have believed what we did, that we were off, or that God, simply, was not trustworthy.
When we say that we were disillusioned to have believed, we check ourselves and attempt to modify our beliefs, try to speculate faithfully by studying in order to come up with something else.
If we say after that test that we were at fault, we try to change ourselves to fit what has to be the real God reality. I was wrong, not God, so in order to keep an intact faith, I change.
In the third option, where we conclude that God was untrustworthy, we decide and, sometimes painfully, to walk away from God. We tell ourselves and others that the God we thought was ‘in charge’ was a portion of our imaginations and that there really can’t be a God.
In all three instances, we relate to God because of some thing, some test, some examination of our deeply held beliefs. We aren’t always in touch with our beliefs. Usually we learn what we believe when those beliefs are challenged or up-heaved or undone.
Whatever category or line of thinking you may be in relation to God (and I don’t put you in these as much as I offer them as possible categories for this post), I wonder if you can consider that you are, right in that category, blessed. Whether you love or hate God. Whether you even believe in God. Whether you sympathize with people you see as religious because you pity us.
Can you stretch into the word blessed? Henry Nouwen talks about the meaning of “blessed” in his book Life of the Beloved, and he says that it’s essentially about good speech. To say that we are blessed is to say that somebody says good things about us. Can you hear that, that someone speaks well of you? I’d suggest that the person saying good things about you and me is God.
We are blessed and some of us because we believed. We did believe, even if we’ve diminished some of those beliefs. We did believe, even if we walked away. Indeed, one of the most remarkable claims about our blessedness is that we are blessed. Without regard for right beliefs and even right acts. Sure, this verse seems to run counter since Mary is heralded for believing in the promise. But the verse doesn’t spread across the entirety of her life.
It doesn’t spread into those nights of doubt when she thought Jesus was just an ordinary kid or those mornings when she was pissed because he said something about having a new mother and a new family, kicking her to the curb. This particular verse is about her pregnancy and her willingness to bear a son. The blessing, though, is a comment about what God always thought of her and what God would, in the future, think of her. Her and you. Her and me.
“…the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44)
Babies around John’s age do move in the womb, although I think any mother-to-be would prefer the baby to kick or turn and not leap. Leaping would really be painful. And yet that is Luke’s way of telling Elizabeth’s story.
Play with that for a moment. Sit with the baby’s joyful response to coming close to Mary, to her prophecy, and to the cousin of baby John. He leaps.
Leaping is hardly a subtle response. It’s clear. Frankly, it could be that John was clearly saying, “Hey, get outta here, kid! This is my house.” A better reading would consider John’s future response to Jesus approaching him on that desert pulpit where he stood preaching like an itinerant revivalist. When that John, the older John, saw Jesus, he exclaimed in worship.
Carry that experience backward to this one. What’s up with the leaping six-month-old fetus? Can he be offering us a corrective to our staid ways of being with Jesus? Can this yet unborn baby know a fitting response to God-enfleshed even before he can see that God in Christ?
When I’m being imaginative, I think that little babies are closer to God than older people. They are fresh from heaven in my worldview, though I cannot support that view with anything you might find credible. I told my son those days after he was first born to remember the sounds of the angels, to keep the whispers of God in his ears.
I told him that the world would get different but that when he dreamed at night as a new baby, he could still grab glimpses of heaven. Because his little eyes were still fuzzy–sight takes time to develop for those little ones–he could still see images of before.
I think of that view when I come to John’s response. He leaps because he’s acquainted with appropriate form for the One in whose presence the angels rejoice. That little John–smaller and quieter than the older one who would stand in a special posture as a premier preacher on the Galilean shores–would remember how the other voices sounded when God approached. And because he couldn’t be heard under all that skin, he did the next best thing: he leaped.
Might this impact how we conduct ourselves in the “presence of God,” in the company of Christ, or as we worship in our own forms? I wonder if we’ll leap or if we’ll sit or ponder or consider and never move at his nearness.
“But why am I so favored…” (Luke 1:43)
I love Mary’s questions. Her ponderings bring me pause. She is the “God-bearer” and she is humble. She has every reason to lift herself as high as the peaks, and she asks a question like this: why am I so favored?
In a good way, she asks, why me? What did I do to get this?
I know that we tend to ask that question when things go off for us, when things go wrong. It’s a reflex it’s so common. God, why are you letting this happen to me? God why aren’t you letting this happen to me? Seldom do we pose Mary’s question: why am I so blessed? She humbly assumes that she is blessed.
But there is another way of framing her question, and it is by asking what the reason is that God favors. One frame has to do with why God picked her while the other has to do with the purpose God went around picking in the first place.
The beauty in Mary’s question is the sneaky reminder that we do not earn God’s goodness. She did nothing and yet God must have favored her because of the uniqueness of who she was. God always honors who we are and still doesn’t hold us to perfection. That’s an important element in thinking through Mary’s favored status. She was special. And though we can only guess, God chose her, from her town and at her age, and God didn’t choose others. She was unique.
The second element, though, is in our asking the pivotal question about purpose. God has a purpose for choosing Mary for the glorious opportunity of being the mother of Jesus. Whatever God’s good background reasons for choosing Mary, God chose her in order that she would bear the child called Jesus. Mary was intended to bear the infant, carry him, and bring him into the world. While it wasn’t the totality of God’s plan for her life, it became the focus for that portion of her life.
She would train her energies in the direction of being a mother to the child. And she would retain this steeped humility to ask questions, to pronounce how undeserving she felt, and to do for God in spite of those questions. Her questions would keep her touching the ground of humble humanity, even while she was the “holy Mary, mother of God.”
What questions might you raise in God’s hearing? Can you wonder into the world of God’s purpose for you, for today, and listen for an answer? If you asked Mary’s question in your own prayer, what might God say?
“Even Elizabeth…” (Luke 1:36)
The angel told Mary that her prophecy included her kinswoman, her relative. Isn’t that wonderful? God’s grand messages to us are never, solely, for us. They are for others. As much as they are about us, they are about others. They spread the miracle-working strength of God.
In this case, Elizabeth was advanced in years. Elizabeth wasn’t expecting to get pregnant. Like Sarah in Genesis, Elizabeth was old. I have teachers who wouldn’t let me call them that. One of my teachers said quite loudly to our peer group, “I am a senior!” There are people who have trouble with “old.” Bad connotations come with that word.
We discard old things. We replace them. We forget them. We prefer younger, newer, bolder, anything other than old. There are good reasons to be bothered by the word.
And then I have friends who I met through Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly who would gladly be called old. When I consider some of those friends, they would be thankful to be called anything by a person who cared for them, someone who was showing up regularly to listen to and talk with them like plain people. I am stretching it a bit, of course, to make the point. But when a person is alone and isolated, calling them old may be complimentary if you’re sticking around to hear their comeback.
In a way, my friends are like Elizabeth. They are the people who no longer expect God to act in them. They are so untreated and mistreated by society, that they believe God does them the way we do. They are resigned, withdrawn, and, many of them, hopeless because the world around them has “forced them out,” made no place for them, moved by them, and cared less for them.
We mistreat people who are old. We think little of them, and I hear Elizabeth’s blessing of bearing fruit as a reminder to remember that “people are people.” …Whether they bear another child, work another job, do something you and I think are contributions to current society or not.
Can you see Gabriel’s words not so much as a comfort to Elizabeth because she could do what everyone younger than her could but as a challenge to fix our thinking around the inestimable quality residing in people who have lived long lives?
They are senior leaders, senior members of the human community. Even if they “bear no more” or “produce nothing else,” can we not speak to them graciously, listen to them tenderly, serve them generously, and love them as we love ourselves? May these better acts be true of us.
We might be changed. We may learn to treat everybody that they matter, essentially, no matter what they do, what they produce, what they accomplish. And what a gracious world that would be. If only we could treat each other, no matter our ages, that we are loved and that we are important just because we’re here.
“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
There was a big deal in calling Jesus the Son of God. To place that label in one’s mouth and to apply it to Jesus carried political consequences. It could also carry the penalty of death. The emperor was called the “son of God.”
Gabriel gave this baby a title that was too big for his little, growing frame. He was hardly a speck and he was already given the massive title that competed with the most powerful person on the planet. And this was to be his life. He was to be a humble competitor to all the most powerful others who would appear to be better options.
Herod was more impressive. He was the current king, the only real monarch who could be seen. He was a narcissist by most reports in biblical studies. His primary concern (and I hear you, Tillich) was not others but himself. He impressed himself by extending his reign, rule, and power. He was violent and driven and dark. And he was who people thought of when they heard the words, “Son of God.”
On the other hand, by any measure, Jesus was broke, without real obvious resource, submitted to the generosity of women–remember that women’s support of Jesus was the opposite of the common custom in our day. In some ways, the humble beginnings were a frame that captured Jesus and made him so unattractive as “an option.”
He wasn’t exciting. He said very good things. Depending on your view of him, you’d place him, as a teacher, next to other wise sages. He was prophetic, said things that were troublesome, but he wasn’t unlike others in that respect. The Christian Tradition says that these were early modifiers of Jesus and that they collected into a large pool of other important things to say about him. He was the Son of God. Not just a teacher. Not just a prophet. He was the (new) ruling king.
Linking Jesus to David, Gabriel characterizes the rule of this Son as eternal. He wouldn’t be subject to time, to temporality, to the votes of people in a democracy or to the sheer might that comes from power and violence. His reign would be unique.
He would be a stark alternative to the sitting king. He would grant us a different vision of the world. He would turn us entirely to something else. I wonder if we can accept what he brings. I wonder if we can say “yes” to him when all the other Herods seem so much more attractive, interesting, and understandable.
Can humility and strength be a part of our lives as citizens of this Son and Ruler? Can power through weakness and redemption of suffering characterize our citizenry as they did his life? Can eternal might come in a different way from what we expect? God, grant it.
“The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35)
When I was a child, I heard my pastor say that there was only one immaculate conception. He was talking to a room of teenagers, at least, he is in my memory. He was probably answering a question about sex from some snarky kid who wanted to raise theologically precise questions. It could’ve been me he was answering. Of course, my brain could be making up the whole story since I do make things up from time to time.
I do remember him saying this though: There was only one immaculate conception. I think the reason for God’s fine selection to have “only one” Mary was not so much to preserve the wonderful sacredness of the first coming of Jesus. I do know that that had to be important. Jesus would only come once.
But I think God chose only one Mary for that one occasion to esteem the extremely high value that God has for sex. Well, I should say God’s extremely high value for human touch in general and sex in particular.
I don’t think God really wanted people making and carrying babies because of some invisible action on the Holy Spirit’s part. I think God wanted people to have sex and not just once. I should say that I don’t know what it meant for the Holy Spirit to overshadow Mary. I probably should restrict my imagination for fear of offending some of you.
That aside, I think God wanted to lift this sacred coming, this incarnation, as a way in which God comes but not as the only way. To be clear, this coming was the initial and free-standing and singular event where God would be en-fleshed. But I’m also a follower of Jesus who really really believes that Jesus finds a way to live in us. I really believe that God resides in us, though if you asked me for my best explanation, you’d probably find it mild.
I think that God comes in many grace-filled moments and in many grace-filled ways. And I think that Mary’s moment was exceptional and necessarily so. But I also believe that God arrives in our lives through the regular and common and sometimes uninteresting activity of human intercourse. Not only sexual but certainly not excluding it. I think that God’s normal way to arrive in our lives is through our lives.
A wise woman told me that “we’re all God has” when it comes to how God works. God has us and God chooses to use what God has in us. Our touches, our gazes, our meals, our poetry and art, our conversations, our fights, our friendships, and our hugs: We’re all God has.
I wonder if that raises the level of import of what we’d call normal. I wonder if touching and kissing and changing diapers can be charged with divinity after Mary’s “more pristine” conception. I wonder if every act is potentially bursting forth, potentially a place or a gesture where the Holy Spirit might overshadow the world with another bit of Christ.
It seems that any touch, any gesture could be filled with this Spirit. Again, not to replace the singular event of Jesus’s birth but to co-create with God, to offer another opportunity for God to meet us in terrestrial ways. Handshakes and hugs fill our lives. Words offered may become words from God. Words not offered may rob us of the same.
May God give us the ability to pay attention, to turn to one another in creative love, and to reach out and in doing so, spread goodness and grace.
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be…” (Luke 1:31)
In Gabriel’s words are promises, promises and warnings. I’m sure that God doesn’t grant us one without the other.
It would be wonderful if it wasn’t true, but unfortunately for those of us who are inpatient, it is true. Nowhere near the human experience do we get favor or grace or promise without the edge of angelic and prophetic pause.
When I was in graduate school at Wheaton, my first course was with Dr. Walter Elwell, and that class put me on a life course to get to know Jesus. It was entitled, “The Life and Teachings of Jesus,” and I’m pretty sure it was responsible for my abiding interest in this beautiful, misunderstood Member of the Divine Community.
We talked about who Jesus was, and even though it wasn’t a course on Christology proper, it was my basic introduction to a theology of Jesus, who he was, what he did, and what following him meant.
As I look at the angel’s words above in Luke 1, I remember Professor Elwell’s consistent reminder of the plain life of Jesus, the context of his life, the texture of his days, the culture surrounding him, and what some of the grand expectations for Jesus must have been.
He was to be great. He was destined to retain a kind of kingship that could only come as a result of God’s promise. But promise was also warning. God would never do the things the angel said without adjusting everything and anything to accomplish those high words.
The problem with God’s promise, as spoken through Gabriel, was the way “The Lord God” would fulfill those words. God would go about making good on the promise in unacceptable forms. Jesus would live a life of service and goodness only to be killed for that life. Jesus would forego life’s pleasures and take up what can only be called a humble, if not poor, existence. He would trade heaven for earth, and no matter how you slice that transaction, he lost.
His would be a life of substitutionary, exemplary, and saving significance, and yet, that life would cost him dearly. It would cost him all. He would be called Jesus but so many other, and worse, words. He would live up to the high words and be brought down by lower words.
In Gabriel’s promise was a warning, but I’m hardly ever close to the warnings of angels. I choose to hold the promises high. Still, a life of following Jesus is a life of being called by worse names, a life of being downgraded more than uplifted, a life of being undone by those you serve rather than truly exalted.
It is a life that is too much to ask for. It is, really, too much to walk in those steps. It is more than we can do. At least without the commanding clarity which comes from the chief communicator for the world’s best communicator. There is something there, and it does feel too great to be faithful to the life Jesus offers. Frankly, I feel very unsteady with Gabriel’s words, with Jesus’ later words, and with following.
May this Advent bring us the balanced reminders which always come with God’s words. We are more than what we gravitate to. The Christian life is longer and lower than grandeur. May we be brought to that life in its fullness, even when it offers us the most unexpected and unacceptable things. And may all the goodness and grace we need be there in those daily futures to sustain us.