I have a confession to make. I haven’t made a parcel for my son D. yet this Christmas. This has been on my mind a lot the last few days. I haven’t gotten something together and baked cookies and wrapped up little reminders of home and sent it all away via Canada Post. Christmas morning will come, and way off in England somewhere, D. and his girlfriend E. will wake up, and brush the sleep out of their eyes, and get some fresh coffee, and stretch and yawn, and then they’ll sit and open presents. And there won’t be anything from Daniel’s pappa. Me. And the worst part is: it’s too late now. I could make all kinds of excuses: it’s final exam marking time, there are so many emails going back and forth about the Finnish and Estonian churches, the research for the book on pilgrimage is taking too long. Things were crazy-busy at the university. All true. But really, is any of that an excuse? I just haven’t been paying enough attention.
At this time of year, one of the questions that comes up, in very many families, is who will be missing this Christmas? We don’t just decorate the table – we start to think about who will be around it. And who won’t. Sometimes it’s because of a death. This is the first Christmas for me without my mother. Some of you have lost loved ones in the last couple of years. You know how hard that is. Sometimes it’s because of distance, as it is for me with my middle son. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Children grow up and go to their partners’ parents, or have Christmasses of their own. Sons or daughters, or grandsons and granddaughters, are off at school, or away traveling. Maybe there’s been a rupture in the family. That’s especially difficult it seems, at Christmas, in what is supposed to be a season of love and forgiveness. There’s a reason that this is also the season of greatest depression and anxiety. “I’ll be home for Christmas” isn’t just the title of a song. It’s a feeling we have in our heart. It’s an urge, almost instinctive, to be home, wherever we feel home is. It’s an unconscious, powerful urge to gather in loved ones under our wings.
One of the ironies of Christmas, is that that warm, family, clannish keeping track of who is home and who is away is actually not very Christmassy. If, by Christmas, we mean the first one.
The first announcement wasn’t about pulling the family all together. It was, instead, about expanding the very notion of family. Blessed are you among women, cries out Elizabeth, as if she can’t help herself: and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why? Because Jesus was going to help his family? Actually, no. As it turns out, he was about to tear his family apart. And a sword will pierce your heart also, the old prophet Simeon warns Mary about her future. This kid will be trouble. But for humanity – well, that was something different. This child was born to expand the whole concept of family, to include, in the sense of all the prophets of Israel, all those people traditionally left out.
God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. NOT the rich. Not the upper-class. Not the influence-peddlers and intellectuals and business-people. For the mighty one of Israel has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things – even better than a Canada Post box from home – and God has sent the rich away empty.
Who is missing this Christmas is an issue that has to do, not with sentimentality and longing, but with who we see and who we ignore.
Christmas, according to Luke, is NOT about happy faces around a table where everyone is related to us. We know that. Of course. But it bears repeating. Christmas is much tougher, and more real. It’s about raw power. It’s about justice, and injustice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And God’s choice, this Christmas, is as it was the first Christmas, is NOT for US. It’s for the refugee, and the migrant, and the outsider, and the poor, and the working poor. God chooses to lift up, not the rich, not the happy, and not even the middle-class. God’s incarnation was and is, to lift up the lowly.
Blessed are you among women, says Elisabeth. Because God is doing something important through you. In you, God is already lifting up the lowly, and remembering the long-standing promise.
Mary is, in a Biblical sense, the spoiler. When you think about it, she’s a lot like the whole Biblical nation of Israel wrapped up in one person. For just as God once chose a weak, insignificant nation of slaves, so God once chose a weak, insignificant girl.
Firstly, she was a girl. At a time when women were property only one step up from the furniture, God chose of all people, a woman. In addition, she was young – we don’t know quite how young, but young. And finally, she was caught in a scandal, in a society not so different from the societies today where a young woman in Mary’s place would be murdered brutally by her own family for so-called shame of getting pregnant.
This was the one God chose as the theotokos, or: “God-bearer”. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, she replies to the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
The message for us is this. If God chose someone as weak and insignificant as Mary for something so important and powerful, then SURELY God continues to choose the weak and insignificant around us. And we need have no shame when we feel that way. AND: we should be ashamed when we ignore the theotokai – the weak and insignificant – who are the prophetic witnesses to what is important and real in our own world.
In the Paris climate talks that just wrapped up, one of the things we learned is that climate change isn’t just about protecting ourselves. It’s about justice. Because it’s more often than not the poorest who are the first to feel the effects of unstable climate. So climate change is once more, a question of how we work out our faith, or fail to.
In Judea, in Paris, in Montreal, wherever you are, God is in the business of using nobodies to perform powerful foolishness. Like Mary said: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has helped this servant, in remembrance of such a great mercy.”
My urge, this Christmas, like yours perhaps, is to bring the family together as much as possible. I want to know who’s missing at Christmas. Somehow to include my son in England. And that’s not a bad thing. But God wants me – God wants us – to think even BIGGER. Who’s missing at Christmas isn’t just the son who isn’t getting a parcel on time. It’s the one who never gets a parcel, the one who waits at the border, the one who lives on a reservation without drinkable water.
What can we do?
We can say with Mary my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God. And then we can let justice be born in us. Even when we are nobodies, worth almost nothing, we CAN do that, with love for Christ and for each other. For we are like Mary in one last, important way. When we think we have and are nothing, but we are open to the announcement of the angel, that’s when God can use us most of all.