Many years ago I was supervising a student studying for the ministry with the United Church of Canada. The supervision process at McMaster University was ecumenical. The students were from most denominations, even including a few brave Catholics. Linda, the student I was supervising, had to satisfy a set of requirements to complete the year. One of those requirements was to preach at least four times a year. So Linda got to preach on the fourth Sunday in Advent on this text from Lukes gospel where Elizabeth and Mary, both pregnant, with joy and enthusiasm greet each other. I cant remember much about the sermon but there is one thing that I will never forget and that was when Linda read the passage that said "the baby leaped within her womb" As she read it, Linda gestured with her hands to her womb. It struck me that that passage had been preached a thousand times before by a myriad of preachers and perhaps none of them had a womb to point to, because they were all men.
For others it may be a small point, but for me the fact that a woman can interpret this passage, so central to the Christian faith, through her experience of being a woman is I believe, very significant. I Googled Linda and she is the Minister at St Mark's United Church in Dundas Ontario.
Preparing for the Birth of Two Boys
Of course it is an understatement to say that the birth of a child is an awe-inspiring event. And before the birth comes the announcement of the pregnancy, with shouts of joy and celebration well, most often. This birth, or rather the birth of these two children, would have great significance for their parents but also for the world into which they were born.
I suspect the author of Lukes narrative, assembling his story from the oral tradition some 80 years after the birth of John and Jesus, drew much of his inspiration from the knowledge that John became a man of fierce integrity and that the life and message of Jesus was beginning to shift the consciousness of the ancient world and moving it into a new age. And here at the beginning of the story we touch that joyful expectation of two mothers who will, in the custom of the day, fulfil their purpose and place in society by producing children.
We know very little about these two women. We dont know their ages, although it appears Mary was somewhat younger than Elizabeth. This was Marys first child, but perhaps not Elizabeths. We know from other gospels that there is controversy around the pregnancy of Mary. But we know little more about the physical aspects of the pregnancy and birth of these two boys.
One Event, Two Experiences
Nevertheless, we are connected to the story in at least two ways. First, most people do have an understanding of the significance of the birth of a child. While babies are born every moment of every day in every part of the world, there is most often the resounding chorus of joy and gratitude when that new life is thrust into the world. Elizabeths and Marys excitement that new life was about to appear is something we know about. But there is a second way we are connected to this story and at first it may not be as apparent. The second aspect of the story is shaped around the later message of Jesus. You see, we are connected to this story because new life; divine life; the life of the sacred is also being born in us. Without pushing the image too far, we are pregnant with the spirit of Jesus. The spirit of hope and joy; of peace and reconciliation; the spirit of forgiveness, of courage and commitment is alive and growing within us and waiting to be born.
I have to be honest and say that it does feel rather peculiar as a man to use that kind of language and image; perhaps because as a man I have no right to exploit the unique experience of a womans pregnancy and giving birth. But maybe it is an important image because it is the gift that woman gives to all humanity. It enables us to ask ourselves, "What is being born in our lives? Where do we see new life emerging after the time of preparation and gestation?" Or could I ask "What is leaping for joy in you?"
Two Christmases Celebrated Together
It is not easy to answer the question of what is being born within you particularly in this season of "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and when we are told to grin and bear it, it will all soon be over. While the cultural trappings of Christmas do have their place, they can easily eclipse the glimpses of new life emerging in ourselves and those around us in this birthing season. Maybe we should celebrate two Christmases. One is to love the experience of this "festival of lights" as a child does. Also remember that Christmas was actually hijacked by the Christians. It was taken from the pagans who spent their time dancing around bonfires and giving thanks that the darkness of night was retreating and the length of daylight was increasing. In our modern version we head for the secular temples of Chadstone or Westfield Shoppingtown to make our sacrifices to the gods of consumerism sorry, I am getting a bit cynical now! No, there is a joy in sharing the love of Christmas that is understandable to a child, and that we can as adults enter into. Colours, lights, gifts, food, friends, family, celebration: and we can often, through a childs eyes, experience that.
And there is another way, perhaps a more mature and adult way, of entering into the experience of the birth of Jesus. If we read a little further in the passage, it becomes clear that this Christmas message is not so much about maintaining the rituals of the status quo. Rather, it is about a radical transformation of life and the world.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
If we want an answer to the question raised before, this is what is being birthed in our own lives and the world. This is the radical transformation of consciousness that we, 2,000 years later, are still trying to come to grips with. And it is all about a change in the human heart. To go back to what is being birthed in you and me, it is as the Song of Mary suggests, that arrogance is being supplanted by humility. That the powerful ego in each of us is being brought under the influence of the true self. And we as adults are beginning to see that we often fill our souls with the things that we think will make us rich, only to feel empty and hollow.
But I did say, and I meant it, that these two aspects of Christmas, the feast of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus, both have a place in our lives and our celebration of this season. I love the Charles Dickens story, "A Christmas Carol". And I particularly love the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim. I think it is a masterpiece. Interestingly in Dickens book he brings together these two expressions of Christmas: the childs love of the celebration with all its cultural trappings; and the transformation of Scrooge through the visitation of the three ghosts of Christmas, who laid bare the meanness, cruelty and sheer stinginess of his life. Nothing of value was being born in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. But he is given a great gift, and that is to see himself as he really is, and it is that vision that does its transforming work on him. After the harrowing journey (or pregnancy) that Scrooge is set on, he arrives on Christmas morning a changed man and he experiences a second naivety. He experiences the love, wonder and joy of Christmas as a child does and yet with the benefit of wisdom and insight that only an adult who has reflected deeply, and been "born again", can have.
Love like a child and live like an adult.