In his now popular Christmas Song Mark Lowry asks Mary, Did You know what it would mean to be the Mother of God. As much as I love this wonderful piece of music, I have to ask, do any of us, let alone Mary, know what it means to have God in our midst?
I suspect, when Mary first accepted the invitation to be the mother of God, she was excited. According to St. Luke, after the annunciation, she went off to find her cousin Elizabeth. To her she proclaimed her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit rejoiced in God her savior.
I doubt Mary understood how difficult it would be to be the “handmaid” of God. When reality set in, it came down hard on Mary. Despite the fact she was carrying the divine incarnation, she was still just another unwed teen mother growing up in a backwater town called Nazareth. I don’t think she understood being engaged to Joseph meant she could be accused of adultery. . a capital offense in her day.
I wonder if Mary thought that once people knew who her child was, she would suddenly rise social status. Perhaps she even anticipated living among the wealthy, in a fine home with servants to wait on her. I wonder if she was disappointed when the emperor forced her and Joseph to travel the long, hard seventy plus miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem just before Jesus was to be born. And, I have to ask, how hurt and degraded she must have felt when she was forced to give birth in the cold, dark, dampness of the stable.
I doubt Mary expected life to be anything like it was for her when she said yes to God. It”s possible this is the point St. Luke is making in the midst of his story. In this opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the writer paints the picture of a divine birth. All the appropriate elements are there, a virgin birth, celestial messengers, and a shining star, but the players are not the nobles they should be. This noble birth he tells us, is different, grittier,sacred and yet mundane.
I wonder, what is more difficult for us to believe today, the virgin birth, or the true grittiness of the first Christmas. As I look at our nativity, I suspect the latter is the more difficult.
There is a certain comfort in romanticizing the stable. It allows us to assuage our guilt over enjoying the excesses this holiday now requires. It allows us to overlook the fact that the holy family was more like the thousands who will sleep in cars or on park benches in cities and town throughout America tonight. It allows us to forget Jesus telling us that when we tend to the least of his own, we tend to him, because it was among the least of his time that he was born into and lived among.
But Mary, did you know this was all part of God’s plan, the poverty, the disgrace, even the discomfort. Because God did not come to save the Emperor, God came to save you and me by illuminating the darkness of evil in which we live.
St. John tells the story best. In his narrative, there is no mention of Mary, Joseph or the shepherds. There is no discussion of lineage or of angels, just a discussion of Word and Light. “In the beginning”, John writes,” was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All thing came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” This evening, Isaiah declares, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” According to tradition, Jesus was born on the longest and darkest night of the year, at the darkest moment, in the darkest and the direst of circumstances. And those who were forced to work and live in the darkness, the shepherds, saw the great light.
This is where God chose to reside on this earth, in the places where evil has done its worst, to give hope to those who suffer its results and to challenge those who condone it.
Why in the darkness? Because darkness cannot exist in the midst of light, and evil cannot flourish once it is exposed to truth. But evil and darkness are relentless foes, they fight to the death. In a few days’ time we will recall the slaughter of innocence, when King Herod orders the deaths of all males two and under, because his reign of deceit and corruption was threatened by our humble and vulnerable king.
For many of us tonight we may wonder if the light still shines, if the darkness has not won, or if it still matters that a child was born just over two thousand years ago. Has the darkness won this year when thousands of men, women and children have been killed by Isis? Did the light finally go out two weeks ago when 132 children were slaughtered by militant extremists who fear the power of education?
It is when the darkness of this world crashes in all around us that the truth of the Nativity needs be told, when the plight of Mary needs to understood, and we must willingly return to the dirt and grime of the stable in order to find God among us once again. For in the midst of dirt and darkness the light of truth shines boldly, we just need to look to find it.
In Pakistan, a week after the massacre, the school’s principle addressed the world through the BBC. She chose to wear a clean and freshly pressed school uniform, and with a voice of defiance, she vowed her school would be opened again. And this past fall, a sixteen year old Pakistani girl named Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize because she would not relent on the right of women to education despite almost being killed for it. Both of these women are signs that the darkness has not overcome the light. . .that God is still among us.
So this night, as we once again celebrate the birth of Christ, I ask you what Mark Lowry asks Mary. Do you know? Do you know who this child is? This child for whom shepherds watch and angels sing. This, this is Christ the King, the Son of God, the source of life and the Light shining for those who walk in darkness.