Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every Christmas since my father died, I have tried to watch the 1954 film version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. When I was young, I was delighted like every good Minnesotan, with the romantic and magical ending of that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then boy wins girl movie set in a snowless ski lodge in December in Vermont. You can’t help but join in singing, “I’m dreaming of White Christmas” as the doors of the ski lodge are opened to reveal the first snowfall on that special Christmas Eve. But that’s not the reason I watch the movie. No, it’s the beginning of the movie that is so touching and it’s when I am reminded of my father.
The movie opens on a makeshift stage near a World War II battle field on Christmas Eve in 1944. There, with dust and half bombed out structures behind him, Bing Crosby sings “I’m dreaming of White Christmas” to the young men in his company. They’re all stoic and teary eyed as they recall places and family far away. My father could have been one of those soldiers, at 120 pounds, clothed and wet. The only difference was that he was in the South Pacific. He seldom spoke of the loneliness of that Christmas Eve in 1944, but he kept memories of it that guided him.
For all of us, this Christmas will be different. You may not be dreaming of a white Christmas, after all the snow has finally come, but you are certainly dreaming of a brighter one. Of course, some people would prefer to forget the endless weeks of empty days and frustrations of the past year. Perhaps, you count yourself in that number. Even now you are tallying down the days until you can discard your 2020 calendar with all its cancelled or postponed events and gatherings. While others among us simply refuse even to recognize the possible joy and wonder that the year has offered. After all, not everything has been bad. I will have many cherished memories from this pandemic year. Deepened relationships and quality time spent with family. It has been a year of readjusting values and priorities.
Amid this year’s disappointments and loss, you might be surprised to discover that Christmas 2020 is actually much more like the experience of the Virgin Mary 2000 years ago than any Christmas we have known since then. And yet, we read that Mary somehow found a way to “treasure all these words and ponder them in her heart.” But how? My friends, that is message that I would like to share with you this night.
Indeed, Mary had much to treasure that night in Bethlehem at the birth of a child, but she also had her fair share of disappointments along the way. Nine months earlier she too had to throw out her planner and calendar. She had been preparing for a wedding, when suddenly the angel Gabriel came and stood before her, frightening her, as he addressed her saying, “oh, highly-favored one.” He told her that she was going to have a baby boy who would be God’s own Son. This promised child would be the long-awaited Messiah, who would rule over God’s people forever. Mary was confused. After all, she understood the basic “facts of life” that she had learned from the women in Nazareth. She knew that the birth of a child was impossible for her, after all, she was a virgin. But Gabriel assured her that nothing is impossible for God. As proof, Gabriel told her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who lived far away in the hill country outside of Jerusalem, who had been called barren had recently become pregnant.
As overjoyed as Mary was at being so highly favored by God, the realities of being a girl of lowly estate, pregnant, and the skepticism of her curious neighbors, meant that Mary had to take refuge in the hill country and stay with her cousin Elizabeth. It wasn’t exactly social distancing or a quarantine, but she had to separate herself from the friends and neighbors in Nazareth. The journey to Elizabeth’s home in a village west of Jerusalem was long, often lasting four days or more. This she did perhaps while wrestling with morning sickness. As she approached the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, her cousin came to meet her, proclaiming to Mary that she was the mother of her Lord, and that the baby in her own womb leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice. It was the frustrations and disappointments, as well as the joys and delight helped nurture Mary’s conviction of faith and an even deeper sense of wonder for God’s ways- and yes, even enough strength and courage to return to Nazareth and to tell Joseph.
Then, just as her time was drawing near to give birth, Mary was forced by the Emperor’s decree far away in Rome, to travel 90 miles with Joseph to Bethlehem, to be registered for the census. Of course, all images depict Mary seated on a donkey for this journey, but I’m sure she probably walked just the same. A donkey would pretty much set its own pace. You may be in front tugging a lead, but the donkey is in charge. You only walk ahead pretending to be in command. When Joseph and Mary finally arrived in Bethlehem, they went to stay with some of Joseph’s relatives, but they had no room in the main part of the house itself, so Mary and Joseph had to sleep with the animals. And there she gave birth to her first born son, and she laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, because there was no room for them with any of Joseph’s family. It was certainly not the benevolent and privileged treatment she was expecting as the favored one of God.
Before long, a handful of awkward, shepherds coming in from the fields showed up to brighten up the place. Mary might have preferred to see her friends from Nazareth holding a baby shower, or even the questioning glances of Joseph’s slightly embarrassed family, but instead she was greeted by the curious and gawking eyes of the adoring shepherds. They were excited and in awe of Mary and her child, saying that an angel had just visited them and told them that this baby is their Savior and Lord, the long-awaited Messiah and King of Israel. Only then, did Mary realize that something so ordinary was actually something truly extraordinary. Often in life, we need to taste the bitterness of disappointment, before we can celebrate the sweet taste of triumph. We need to wrestle with hardship, in order to experience victory. With the departing shepherds’ word still echoing in her ear, Mary knew she had much to treasure and ponder.
Do any us truly understand the potential meaning of the events that have happened to us in our lives when they happen? It would be irresponsible to brush them aside as having little consequence. My father certainly didn’t understand the meaning of that Christmas in the South Pacific in 1944. He didn’t speak of it, but he knew that his life was indelibly changed by it. Mary didn’t understand how she was the mother of the Son of God, and yet still a simple Jewish peasant girl. How her son was the long-awaited Messiah, and yet he was the son of a carpenter in a small town ruled by the mighty Roman Empire. She didn’t understand why angels proclaimed his coming to the lowly shepherds out in the fields, and not to the king in his palace or the priests in their temple. The King of the Universe, you see, God’s only son, once wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in manger does not come to us in the way the world expects. But he comes just the same – even in a year where Christmas is different than all others.
The awkward shepherds brought the words to Mary. It was the message that would keep her treasured thoughts and memories of the year that had passed in balance. “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Mary, his is the child you hold in your arms. And this is the child, this Jesus is our hope. Even in a world filled with political turmoil, peace resting on shaky ground, a pandemic scourging the nations of the earth, and financial collapse looming for many, maybe even an empty chair at your table, he says to us, “Do not be afraid. I, the God Emmanuel am with you.”
My friends, here’s wishing you a bright and merry Christmas with just enough quiet moments to treasure and ponder God’s gift to you. And with his confidence and hope may you experience his deepest blessings in the coming year. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.