It’s Not Christmas, Yet.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Four tapers burn on our Advent wreath, and many of will begin in earnest to prepare for the holiday later this week. It’s not Christmas yet.
If your family’s custom is to set up a Nativity Crèche you may do so, including the animals and the Holy Family. The baby Jesus figurine, however, must remain in the box until Christmas Eve after Mass. The shepherds will arrive at dawn on Christmas Day, and the Magi have to wait until Twelfth Night, or January 6th.
For three weeks now, we’ve been hearing the prophetic voices warning us of what’s in store for us; last Sunday we heard John the Baptist call us a “brood of vipers.” Today we turn out attention to Bethlehem and the meeting of two very different women. In some places, the hymn by Bishop Philip Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” will be sung as the processional out into the world; but it’s not Christmas yet.
The prophet Micah was active in the southern kingdom of Judah during the middle of the 8th century BCE. The northern kingdom of Israel was about to be conquered by the Assyrians and Judah was about to become a vassal state in order to preserve their way of life for a little while longer.
Micah tells us that God is about to turn things upside down in the lives of the people of Judah. In order to preserve the status quo with the Assyrians the nation of Judah had to pay tribute in order to keep the Assyrian army from marching in. This tribute was paid through exorbitant taxes most heavily leaved on the poor and disadvantaged (if this sounds familiar …). Micah tells us that God’s people will be taken back to a different time and promises the restoration of David’s throne. However, we will not return to Jerusalem the home of King David, but to Bethlehem the home of the shepherd and peasant David. It will be a restoration of God’s justice.
Our Gospel recounts the meeting between two marginalized women. Mary is young, she is betrothed but unmarried, and pregnant – this put her not only on society’s fringes, but in potential mortal danger under Jewish law at the time. Elizabeth is older, though married, she was past child-bearing age and barren, thus on the margins of society. Mary has just had her encounter with the angel Gabriel announcing that she will conceive and give birth to a son. Now, she off to see her cousin Elizabeth who is now six months into her pregnancy.
The two women greet each other, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth calls Mary “Blessed” and Mary responds with her hymn which is traditionally known as the Magnificat from the Latin opening “magnify,” or as we have it now, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. (BCP, page 119). This hymn is traditionally sung at Evening Prayer as the response to the first reading from Scripture.
This hymn makes the idea of Mary as a meek and mild woman a lie – this is a statement of strength, specifically feminist strength that calls into question the social norms of her day. During portions of the last century, this hymn was prohibited by several totalitarian regimes because of its subversive message. It’s ideas are nothing new, Hannah’s Prayer (I Samuel 2: 1 – 10) is another example of the notion that God’s desire for justice places everyone on the same level no matter what their race, economic status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Both Hannah’s Prayer and the Magnificat describe God acting in history to bring about his desire for justice and love in the human community.
Mary, along with Elizabeth and Hannah, are envisioning a world turned upside down. The one who will accomplish this is God, and that plan is in motion and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Today’s Gospel is intended to give us hope that the world for which God long, for which we pray to come among us, is indeed taking place, and eventually we will find our world turned upside down.
Still, we have to wait – it’s not Christmas yet.