Yet in other ways the Christmas magic that people seek is something of an illusion. At Christmas we express what we are within, in spite of the veneer of human kindness that is appropriate to the season.
There are three questions many people ask at Christmas time. The one that children often ask one another is "What are you getting for Christmas?" We try to make it all good by teaching that Christmas is giving time. But there is this deeply-entrenched expectation of getting and we sometimes begrudge the season because we wonder whether our bank balances can really stand the getting expectation. I believe that the ABC-Australia Post Christmas toy appeal is very commendable, but it doesn't appeal to our desire and need to give, but to the "getting expectation". Now, let me make it quite clear that I think we need to have a spirit of generous giving and especially that those of us who have need to give to children and families who do not have. What I am simply saying is that the getting expectation is so much part of our whole social fabric. "What's in it for me?" is our basic concern - in economic terms, in relationships, whatever
A second question is "What are you doing for Christmas?" Christmas, of course, is a holiday season. Schools are in recess. Businesses are closed down. Only essential services like electricity supply, police, nursing staff are on duty. Everyone else is expecting - and planning - to be doing something different from the normal routines of employment. Please spare a thought - and a prayer - for the people who have to work over Christmas. Sometimes in the course of conversation we may ask someone, "What are you doing over Christmas?" and they reply, "Oh, I can't do anything this year. I have to go to work!" And doesn't that express what we all tend to feel? Our work isn't really "doing" anything. It isn't significant. It isn't an integral part of what life is all about. A job has to be endured to earn the money for some real life.
I recall a number of years ago talking to a nurse who was to be on duty on Christmas Day. Hospitals try to send as many patients home for Christmas as possible - and it is a time of year when no one really wants to work (whatever we think about penalty rates, they deserve it on Christmas Day!). She was a Christian and decided to take her guitar along and sing carols to the patients.
So much of our doing doesn't reach beyond ourselves at all. The "doing" of our life is totally selfish. Sadly, Christmas is one of the times when we exhibit this quality.
A third question is "Where are you going this Christmas?" Paul and Keri have invited their two families to come to their new house for Christmas together. What about you? Hopefully our response reflects our commitment to home and family. It is a positive good that so many families do endeavour to get together at Christmas time. It is a sad fact, however, that Christmas is a time for family arguments and domestic violence. There are those in the community who really dread the coming of Christmas. This season ought to be a time when we evaluate the direction of our life. Too often in Australia, the only consideration is the direction of our car.
We can only imagine the time Elizabeth and Mary spent together. These two women - the one having conceived when well past childbearing years, the other having conceived as a virgin.
We have no idea, by the way, just how old Elizabeth and her husband were. The Good News Bible describes them as being "very old" - the Authorised Version as "well stricken in years". The original Greek simply means "advanced in their days." They might have been in their late fifties or sixties - beyond the time when a childless couple would expect to have a baby, yet not so old that they might not survive to rear the child.
The attitudes underlying our three Christmas questions were not strongly in their thinking. "What will you get ?" Well, they each knew their child would be a boy. No ultrasonics in those days, of course! The angel Gabriel himself had brought that bit of information! But their attitude was not getting, grasping, anyway. For each of them, there would be a load as well as a joy in the bearing of their child. They were giving of themselves, and their gracious Lord was able to give to them - and to the world - through their availability for his will.
Listen to Elizabeth's greeting, "You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord's mother comes to visit me? " Yes, what a privilege for Mary to be the mother of Jesus! And what a temptation to think of divine blessing and assumed status among women!
Yet that wasn't Mary's attitude at all. "My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Saviour, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant!" In no sense was she accepting Elizabeth's words as praising her, as exalting her above others. Not only did she recognise herself as "his lowly servant", but she acknowledged herself as a sinner in need of the very work of salvation her Son would be bringing into the world. "From now on all people will call me happy, because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me." There was nothing of the getting, grasping attitude about her. Having humbled herself, having made herself available for the will of God, she was able to receive his great blessing and still know that it was his gift, not her assumed prerogative.
What has happened to me, she is saying, is simply demonstrates again God's character towards anyone who trusts him - "His name is holy; from one generation to another he shows mercy to those who honour him." Now, isn't that an important principle? What was happening to Mary was absolutely unique - to bear the Son of God. But the principle of divine favour towards Mary is the same as God's favour towards us who believe.
God's favouritism is so very different from ours. In fact the Bible says many times that God has no favourites - literally, he doesn't lift his face to anyone. So we don't have status with God and we cannot buy status with God. He doesn't lift his face to anyone. But he does show mercy to those who honour him.
So, in God's way of dealing with people, there are some surprising reverses. The proud with all their plans are scattered. Mighty kings are brought down. The rich are sent away empty. But the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things.
There is an idea abroad - a whole system called Liberation Theology - which takes passages such as this and says that God has a preference for the poor. But that idea is not really supported here or elsewhere. It misses the whole point. God has no favourites. It is not that he overturns our system of favouritism and prefers the poor instead! No! His mercy is shown to those who honour him. He lifts up the lowly. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their ministries calling on people to "repent and believe the good news." In fact, Jesus said to the religious leaders of his time, "The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe " (Mt.21.31b,32b). And Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, "Now remember what you were, my brothers, when God called you. From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing" (1 Cor.1.26). There may well be a tendency for people to depend on their possessions and their status. But the lack of possessions and status does not make us right with God. Jesus did say, "Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!" (Mt.5.3). Rich and poor alike are called to repent and believe the gospel. In practice, many of the rich and powerful are unwilling to do this.
God is no respecter of persons. He has no favourites. But he does choose people for particular tasks. He chose Abraham and his descendants to be the channel through which he would reveal himself and his purposes to the world. He chose the prophets to speak his message. He chose Mary to be the human mother of his own Son.
"He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors, and has come to the help of his servant Israel. He has remembered to show mercy to Abraham and to all his descendants for ever!" Mary's words here refer specifically to Israel, the descendants of Abraham as the ones who had received the promises. Those promises had a wider scope - for he would be a light to the Gentiles. The fulfilling of those "promises made to our ancestors" would bring light to the whole world - to all who would believe in his name, Jew and Gentile alike. The descendants of Abraham had received the promises and were waiting for the light to be revealed. Though centuries have passed, God hasn't forgotten! He has kept his promise!
"Mary stayed about three months with Elizabeth and then went back home." This was about the time Elizabeth's baby was due to be born. Did Mary stay for the birth of John? We are not told, and writers are divided on the matter. Reading it as it stands seems to suggest that she had gone home, though it would have seemed reasonable for her to have stayed. There were good reasons for a person in Mary's situation to depart before the crowd of neighbours and relatives started to gather. And it was important that Joseph formally marry Mary (as recorded in Mt.1.24-25) before her pregnancy was becoming too obvious. She would not want to be too public before that.
So - what was she doing
? and where was she going
Those were not questions for her. All were bound up in her initial
commitment to be the humble servant of the Lord. Pregnancy can
change a lot of plans and goals. It is a commitment that can cut
right across some of the other things that seemed important to
So what about us - and our Christmas?
The key question is not what we are getting or what we are doing or where we are going - but whether we humble ourselves before God and believe in Jesus Christ his Son whom he sent to be our Saviour. That will help answer what we need to be doing or where we need to be going.
The key question is not our status in the community (or the status of our bank balance) - but whether we know the love and mercy of God. And that is available to us all in Jesus.
While Christmas is an event that is special and different from any other time of the year, the rest of the year will be different when we have grasped what is it all about. For it is not about a cute story, but about dealing with our human brokenness and sin. It is not about a spark of light in the midst of bleak news, but about the coming of the Light of the world! Draw back the curtains and let the light shine in!