Two people are having a conversation about books. The first one says that once he has read a story, any story, he is done with it because he now knows the outcome and there are no more surprises. The second man says that once he reads a story, he often looks forward to reading it again. “But why?” asks the first man, “don’t you get bored with it, since you know how it all turns out?” “No,” his friend answers, “because I am always surprised by what I didn’t see the first time.”
Two stories, two readers, and two different responses. All of our lives are a story. We might do well to consider re-reading our lives for what we don’t see at first glance.
In the Christmas story that we have today, folks traditionally focus on Mary. But I’d like to spend some time with Elizabeth—the mother of John the Baptist. Her home is somewhere out there in the Judean countryside and a newly- pregnant Mary goes to see her.
Mary probably figured that Elizabeth would understand. They were related after all—they were kin, in the way that some people are considered family, no matter what the actual family tree says. In addition, Elizabeth was pregnant herself—and hers wasn’t a typical pregnancy either, barren as she was, and with her husband getting along in years. Elizabeth spent the beginning months of her pregnancy in seclusion, perhaps she was afraid of losing the baby; we don’t know. In any case, Mary turns to Elizabeth, the secluded one, in the same way that we turn to certain people in crisis, for a little sanctuary and a safe place to sort things out. Who are those people for you?
Mary shares with Elizabeth her startling news of an angel telling her— her—that she would bear a child who would change the world. Mary doesn’t know what to make of this news, what to make of what is growing in her womb, in her heart, and in her soul. She is a poor, unmarried servant girl, the property of her father, engaged to Joseph, with limited options and limited opportunity, in a village with strict mores. According to the custom of the day, Mary could have been stoned for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She wants someone to talk to. Someone who won’t judge or lecture her. Someone who can understand.
At Christmastime, we speak of the difficult journey that Joseph and Mary, late in her pregnancy, make to Bethlehem because of a forced census. We stand trembling with them on a doorstep when privilege gives them reluctant permission to lodge for the night in a barn. But there is another difficult journey, one that begins before Joseph and Mary ever reach Bethlehem and the birth of their child. This journey begins in Mary’s heart, once she receives the strange news and ponders what difference this will make for her life.
Many times in our lives we are given a message that is difficult to understand, difficult to make heads or tails of, difficult to understand the implications of, and difficult to wrap our minds around, no matter what our heart or well-meaning friends might say. Sometimes the circumstances and people of our lives collide in complex ways and our lives become pregnant with something that we can not see, yet we can feel a stirring inside of us. We can have so many questions about the future—so many questions that we must bear patiently and with confidence that, in time, what is unclear to us will be made clear. At these times it can be difficult to discern between blessing and burden, between believing our story-line to be fixed and permanent and believing that the story can be read again in an entirely new and different way.
The angelic messenger that visits Mary brings her a vision for her life that is both surprising and unsettling. Mary will bear a special child, a holy child. And despite her questions, we are told that Mary believes and trusts in the vision and God’s message to her. She answers the messenger with the words, “Here am I” and “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Anyone who tries to say these words with sincere feeling knows how special Mary’s response is. Somewhere between “here am I” and “Let it be” we grasp at control. We tend to add little caveats like, “Here am I…but could we do things my way?” Or we might think “Let it be…but not now and definitely not yet.” We tend to put riders on God’s legislation in our lives. Rarely, do we answer with a simple, “Here I am.” Rarely do we let God speak without trying to get a word in edgewise.
Now, it takes awhile before Mary sings publicly what she knows privately. It also takes awhile for us to move from acceptance to praise. Before Mary reaches Bethlehem, she goes to Elizabeth’s house in the hill country and stays for three months. We don’t know what happens in Mary’s life during the time that she spends with Elizabeth, but we can guess that it gives her the space she needs to fully understand the miracle that is growing inside of her. Three months is time enough for Mary to grow accustomed to the new thing that God is doing in her life, time enough to ponder with her friend what God’s messenger shared with her, time enough to explore her questions and her doubts, and time enough to witness the birth of her cousin’s new baby, John. She stays with Elizabeth long enough to observe another woman who embodies a miraculous promise—not just in words, but in action.
Because we are usually more interested in the delivery room, our Christmas pageants and re-telling of the story often focuses on stars and shepherds, angels and inns. But Elizabeth has a role to play, too, early in Mary’s pregnancy when questions loom large on the horizon of hope and there is so much to sort out and gently set aside. I imagine two friends supporting and reassuring each other over endless cups of coffee and late night talks.
It would seem that Mary is seeking reassurance from Elizabeth, but what she actually receives is blessing. When Mary shows up, Elizabeth doesn’t call her foolish or crazy for believing a vision of angelic proportions. She doesn’t chide her for leaving Joseph for three months or for believing a miracle can come from chaos. Instead, she blesses her and blesses that which is growing inside of her, the promise that will bring hope for all. She blesses Mary for placing her trust in God, despite her doubts and confusions and a potentially hostile environment.
There is a tremendous difference between giving reassurance and giving blessing. Many of us have known times when false reassurance was given. We have heard people say, “it will be okay” and we know already that it isn’t okay, and that it won’t be okay, not by a long shot. But blessing is different. Blessing says that we will not be alone when we say the words, “here I am” and “let it be.” Blessing says that we will have strength to cope not because our trial will make us stronger, but because we have been made strong already by a loving and faithful God. Blessing says that a place of peace and sanctuary has already been prepared for us in the midst of hostility and chaos. Blessing says that there is an Elizabeth to walk before us and angels who say, “do not be afraid” when we awaken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Blessing says that we are worthy to bear the Christ child, God’s promise, no matter the season. Blessing asks us to re-read the story of our lives and see that which previously escaped our attention.
Friends, our Advent journey is coming to a close, and a new journey is just beginning. Philip Andrew Adams once said, “[for] many people, the holidays are not voyages of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance.” Perhaps this Christmas, we can travel beyond our well-established ritual of song, story, gifts, and gadgets to discover something we might have over-looked, something that can heal both ourselves and our world.