Who still believes what was spoken to us by the Lord? “The days are surely coming,” God has promised, “when I will fulfill the promise I made” (Jer. 33:14), and on Christmas we will celebrate the arrival, roughly 2015 years ago, of those very days, the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise, in the birth of the Prince of Peace. But does anyone really believe what we celebrate?
Two millennia after the heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace,” we still hear of wars and rumors of wars and of their financial, environmental, and human cost. All of us are still dehumanized by an economic system that perpetuates poverty for many in order to preserve power and privilege for a few. In Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods, people are increasingly denied easy access to banks and health clinics and grocery stores, while in Williamsville people stand in line to spend $50 or more for a modest dinner.
Can we still sing with Mary about how God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53)? Today it’s the poor, the orphans, the migrant workers, and the refugees who face being sent away empty. Does anyone here, I wonder, still believe in the promise of peace? Or have we pushed it so far into the future that we don’t have to deal with it anymore?
Wild John calls us to repentance and to an imminent expectation of the One who is to come. Today’s conversation between Mary and Elizabeth reminds us of what has already come, of what is already growing among us, even before we are fully aware of it, even before we are ready for it.
When Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, visited Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, John leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of his cousin who would be called the Messiah. “You are blessed by God above all other women,” Elizabeth said to Mary, “and your child is blessed. “You are blessed, because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (Luke 1:42, 45 NLT).
Do you still believe what was spoken by the Lord? Imagine what it would mean for someone to say to you, and for you to believe it: You are blessed by God, and the holy potential growing in you is also blessed. “You are blessed, because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” – not because of some quality you already possess, not because you have proven yourself worthy, not because you have some special ability, but because for a reason known only to God you said, as Mary said to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever [God] wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:38 NLT).
Meister Eckhart, the German mystic of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, wondered, “What good is it for me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1,400 years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and my culture and my times?” What good is it for us today if Mary gave birth to Christ 2,000 years ago and you and I don’t give birth to Christ in our persons, in our community, today? Can we sense in one another the presence of the divine even before it is born? Can we feel some holy possibility in us leap for joy at the nearness of a holy possibility in those closest to us?
Up in Nome, Alaska, a fourth-grade teacher, a new-comer to Alaska, was discussing with her class the suggestions for a Christmas pageant. The instructions for the pageant read: “For children playing Santa’s reindeer, there should be brown outfits, and passable reindeer horns could be made of bare branches, trimmed to the proper shapes and painted.”
Trees are not something Nome has a lot of, and after pondering the treeless landscape, the teacher said to her class, “Well, I guess we’ll have to do something else. We can’t make horns of branches because we don’t have any trees.” The children looked disappointed, until one boy spoke up. “We haven’t got any trees, teacher,” he said, “but we do have lots of reindeer horns.”
Are we so intent on looking for what we’ve been told to expect that we miss what’s scattered on the ground right in front of us? Are we so intent on waiting for the Prince of Peace we expect in the future that we miss the One being born among us today? That for which we follow the stars in heaven to find is among us already, waiting to be recognized and received as if for the first time. Do we still believe it? Are we ready to imagine it into reality? Will we be the ones whom all generations will call blessed?