“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, And caroling out in the snow, there’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”
As the old song goes…“There’ll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing, when loved ones are near, because it’s… the… most… STRESSFUL time of the year!”
Well, at least that’s how some of us feel that the song should go.
Because for many of us, between parties and shopping and baking and wrapping and negotiating traffic and fighting the crowds and taking on too much and traveling or welcoming travelers…
…and in the midst of it all just living with the anticipation…
…and all the while knowing that this Christmas will not be able to live up to the high expectations our culture places on the need to reach the heights of the glories of Christmases long, long ago, and in some magical way exceed them… because of all this Christmastime has become a season of high stress.
This time of year reminds me of how once, when I was in school, we had a professor who gave us an inventory, a test, that was intended to measure a person’s mental health. It was essentially a list of 100 or so possible life events – some large, some smaller – things like marriage, divorce, a move, death of a parent, death of a pet, enrolling in school, losing a job, gaining a job, and all sorts of other things, some good, some bad – but with each life event worth a certain number of points. The idea was that good or bad, significant events and transitions add up and exert a kind of exponential pressure on us.
So we were to take this inventory and give ourselves a certain number of points for each of the events we had personally experienced in the last year. We were to total them up and in that way we would find out where our mental health stood on the spectrum from healthy to being a candidate for a nervous breakdown.
I don’t know what Mary’s score would be on this inventory, but it would be high.
Mary, a young girl from the smallest of towns, with probably not-the-most life-experience-ever is engaged to be married – which is a wonderful time in a person’s life, but stressful – she is anticipating a move, beginning to say goodbye to family and friends, preparing for a new home with all the arrangements and transitions that this entails.
And Mary has just discovered that although unwed, and although a virgin, she is pregnant. And so, in addition to all the other unsettled things in her life, she contemplates the words the messenger from God has spoken to her:
That the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her and conceived in her a son. Now, in addition to everything else, she contemplates what it might mean that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob, and whose Kingdom will have no end.
This sounds wonderful, of course, until we remember what all this really means for Mary.
Last year, a member of our congregation gave our children a movie called “the Nativity Story,” which was made in 2006 and stars Kesha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaacs. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The film takes you through the entire series of events leading up to Jesus birth with incredible artistry and acting and music, but the most shocking scene is when Mary, having been away visiting Elizabeth, returns home to Nazareth.
Her pregnancy is visible and the reaction from the people in the town is astonishing. First her neighbor’s see and stop what they’re doing – they stop working, they stop talking, and their jaws drop in disbelief. Her father and then her mother see her as she arrives and cannot hide their heartbroken bewilderment and profound disappointment. Mary is enveloped in shame and humiliation right in front of nearly every relationship that mattered in her life.
We think we feel the crush of pressure to live up to people’s expectations of us?
Mary is like us in every way – she knows all the stress we experience — almost certainly more.
We are like Mary in every way – both of us enduring almost more pressure from life than we can stand –and yet, Mary’s response is not to complain but to say without reservation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Our response to this season, and to the pressures we face in these days we are living can be that of of frustration, of trepidation, of fear, of grinchiness, of relief when we think about how it will all be over soon, but we learn from Mary what our response should be as we remember that God has chosen to come into the world in Jesus:
In those days, we hear, carrying God in her body, Mary sets out with eagerness, with enthusiasm, with haste, unafraid of what anyone will think, unconcerned with anything else, to visit Elizabeth and to rejoice together at what God is doing in their lives.
Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary replies: “My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and humiliation and has done great things for me.”
Mary and Elizabeth show us how to rejoice that God in Christ has come to be WITH US in the stress, the pressure, the humiliation, the crushing inability to rise to the occasion, and the disappointment.
God has come to be WITH US in it all – in the midst of our addiction, our depression, the violence that robs us of life. God has come to be WITH US in our grief as we long for those who are no longer with us, and whom we miss at Christmas. God has come to be WITH US, as one of us — and in Jesus, to know our limitations.
Jesus has come for us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, so that our lives are sanctified once and for all through the offering of his body.
There is a couple in our congregation who put out a nativity set – like many of us, for sure. But when our seedling small group gathered at their house a couple weeks ago and I saw their little wooden nativity, it absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen anything like it.
All the pieces were there – the diligent father, the expectant mother, the unassuming camels and sheep, and the little child, but looming over it all was a large wooden cross, standing on a pedestal right there in the manger.
For a moment it seemed out of place….premature. But as this couple know so well: Jesus is born in the shadow of the cross.
Jesus birth is for the purpose of bringing God’s desires to fruition:
To bring mercy and compassion to those who fear him, to scatter the arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their places of power and to lift up the poor and undistinguished, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed, to come to the help of his children, according to the promise he made to Israel…
…and the Lord does this through the gift of his life.
The Lord came to save us and to love us and to fulfill his promises, and Mary shows us how to receive the Lord with joyful expectation.
There is a poem that has been going around facebook this week. It was on a lot of people’s feeds and getting a lot of shares. I saw it on a good friend’s page. It’s the shortest of poems. A poem written by an Australian poet named Pam Brown.
It goes like this:
“We expect too much at Christmas. It’s got to be magical. It’s got to go right. Feasting. Fun. The perfect present. All that anticipation. Take it easy. Love’s the thing. The rest is tinsel.”
Lots of shares, likes, and loves, commend this profound advice as wise words to live by. Love is the thing. Its not all about the trimmings and not about all the trappings; and perhaps, as Pam Brown says, we do expect too much of Christmas, but another way to look at it would be what we expect too LITTLE of Christmas.
The same God who promised Bethlehem that she would be the place from which a shepherd would be born to feed God’s people, makes a promise to us.
The same God who promised Zechariah and Elizabeth that they would have a baby in their old age who would prepare a way for the Lord, makes a promise to us.
The same God who promised Mary she would give birth even though it seemed impossible, makes a promise to us.
This same God has come to us in our living Lord Jesus Christ, born to a virgin, crucified on the cross, and risen from the tomb. He comes to us again today and tomorrow, bearing God’s promise.
He promises to speak to us through his word and to feed us with his supper, to forgive or sins and to make a home for us with God.
If we expect anything less that to be with God and join the angel chorus that hails his birth, we have expected too little of Christmas.
Our God makes promises and keeps promises, and he promises us that he will come again to this world being crushed by our desires to be perfect and save ourselves – once and for all he will lift us up, fill us with good things, and remember the promise of his mercy forever.
He will come again, and I don’t know about mistletoeing, but hearts will be glowing, and loved ones will be gathered near, and all creation will join in Mary’s song of praise:
“My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and has done great things for me.”
Yes, that’s how the song will go.
Thanks be to God!