Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This past week, my wife Janna and I listened closely to the news reporting of the most popular Christmas songs on the airwaves. We had our own favorites going, Silent Night, White Christmas and O Holy Night. Earlier in life, I might have hoped for It’s a Holly, Jolly Christmas or All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth. The news sources, however, announced that although music lovers around the world look to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year with a variety of songs featuring the kings, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Michael Buble, according to an analysis of Spotify, Mariah Carey is the undisputed Queen of Christmas, with the continuing popularity of her hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Now, I don’t doubt the power of romance and gift giving at Christmas, but I believe there is something about time and place which is equally important. When you strip away the colorful and illusory rituals of the TV specials, the flurry of activity, the music and the lights, what remains at the heart of Christmas is the home. It is true for each one of us. It why such favorite Christmas tunes, as, “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” have such a grasp on our heartstrings. There is something in these songs that calls us to a place where our fundamental relationships and faith are nurtured. Those places give us meaning and joy, and perhaps some frustration. After all, as Robert Frost once said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The Virgin Mary, of course, wouldn’t have known any of the hits on the Spotify list of Christmas classics. Nor would she have known that her journey to the Judean hills could inspire families generations later. She was newly engaged to Joseph, a man she did not know. His house was not yet her home, so when she needed refuge and support, she turned to the elderly cousin Elizabeth. The visit is only a short passage of scripture, but it offers one of the only conversations in in scripture two women.
Surprisingly Martin Luther thought the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth was so important that he preached on it over 30 times. That may be jarring to good Lutherans today who only know Janet Martin’s Catholic-Lutheran Lexicon; They Glorified Mary, We Glorified Rice. Mary makes her annual appearance in the Christmas pageant and perhaps on Good Friday at the foot of the cross, and then disappears again. That’s enough. To Martin Luther, however, the announcement of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, and her visit to Elizabeth underscored the fundamental role that the home plays in nurturing the Christian faith. And that is what I would like to share with you this morning.
Today’s story actually begins a few verses earlier in St. Luke’s gospel and 80 miles further north in the village of Nazareth. There Mary was greeted by the Angel Gabriel who announced to her that she had found favor with God, and that she would bear a child and she would name him Jesus. Mary questioned, “How can this be? Since I am a virgin.” The angel answered Mary by telling her that her own elderly cousin Elizabeth who was considered barren had conceived a son, and then added, “For nothing is impossible with God.” With that, Mary acquiesced, saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
Mary’s response may surprise us. It certainly surprised Luther. Here was Mary full of the Holy Spirit. She had conceived the Son of God within her own body and soul. She was full of God’s grace and yet she could not rest. She immediately rose up in haste and journeyed to the home of Elizabeth to help her in her last months of pregnancy. It is a profound lesson of Christlike discipleship. The greater and higher the gift of God, the more we must humble ourselves and serve others.
Certainly, Mary didn’t understand the challenges of following God’s word, when she answered, “Here I am.” But isn’t that true for all of us? It is easy to be faithful when the journey of life is moving along smoothly. It is easy to sing happy Christmas songs when all is looking good and hopeful on your immediate horizon. But what do you do when you have questions? Where do you turn when the challenges are greater than you can handle?
Mary did what many of us do when facing uncertainty, grueling challenges and adversity. We look for sympathetic, supportive and guiding voices and listening ears. That’s why we return home for the holidays. We seek out the wisdom, affirmation, and comfort of loved ones. Elizabeth’s home and companionship did not disappoint. She welcomed Mary with open arms and words of joy and affirmation. “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”
Mary would have plenty of challenges before her-more than she could have imagined. She would spend three months with Elizabeth, learning what it meant to be an expectant mother, but she was also being prepared for what she could expect in Nazareth when she returned. Mary, an unwed mother would be travelling back to Nazareth alone, facing a skeptical husband who was ready to dismiss her secretly. Luther himself said, “The holy maid could not come to honor before she has first been put to shame. Here she was, expecting a child, potentially deserted by her husband, in danger of stoning for being unwed and with child.” Mary’s visit to Elizabeth confirmed that Christian conviction that faith becomes easier and God’s call more manageable “where two or three are gathered together.” That is what is so important about going home for the holidays. It’s where we are to find compassion, support and nurture.
The gift of going home, however, is not merely one directional. It is not simply the grandchildren who find joy in their grandparent’s home, the grandparents find joy as well. The gift of coming home for the holidays is about mutual renewal and consolation. That too, is what the story of the visitation teaches us. When Mary entered the home, she greeted Elizabeth, and immediately, when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped within her womb. Elizabeth was overjoyed as well. And how blessed Mary felt when Elizabeth prophetically spoke, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” These words offered assurance to Mary. The journey back to Nazareth alone would be much easier with Elizabeth’s words echoing in her mind and heart.
My friends, our children face challenges every day. Fifty years ago, they might have found support and sympathy from friends, colleagues and institutions, but today they are often forced to face their challenges on their own. That is why the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is so timely. A new uncertain generation needs the sympathetic support and compassion of older Elizabeths in their lives. That is the role that you and I must play with intention and purposefulness. We all live and thrive in relationship to others. Sometimes we give in these encounters, and sometimes we receive. The holidays in our home serve as a place where we actively participate in God’s work in and through the world, if we choose to- and it is why people still sing, “There’s no place like home of the holidays.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.