Luke alone tells us of Mary’s journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s home after she learns she will be the mother of the long awaited Messiah. There must have been something about Mary’s face, a light – a radiance, that wasn’t there before. Elizabeth is moved to greet her with wonder.
Mary for her part cries out with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on me – the Mighty One has done great things for me . . . and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord from generation to generation. . . . God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . . has brought down the powerful from their thrones . . . and lifted up the lowly; . . . has filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1:47-53) It is a mystical, magical moment when Elizabeth and Mary know that all is right with their world. They rest secure in the knowledge that God has done wondrous and powerful things.
A few months later though, everything falls apart. Joseph wants nothing to do with Mary until an angel appears in a dream and reaches into his heart. Late in pregnancy, a bureaucrat decides to take a census, sending everyone back to the town of their ancestor’s births. What possible logic was there in that? Had Bethlehem been closer, life would have been easier. Instead there is a long trip over rough terrain. Scripture knows nothing of a donkey for Mary to ride. Their arrival in Bethlehem is slowed down by Mary’s late term pregnancy. The place is crowded.
If they had family still in the area, any space is already taken. By now Mary is in labor – not surprising after the grueling journey. I suspect that Mary was not feeling very blessed in that moment. Stressed from labor pains and no place for a child to be born, she must have wondered about that heavenly visitor. The young couple experience the pain of being turned away from one place after another . . . Away from warmth, safety and a birthplace for a child.
Mary knows nothing of angels singing. She is not aware that in a distant land magi are trying to make sense of a strange star and what it might signify. She is only aware of the physical and emotional pain. This birth is not at all like she imagined it would be.
Like Mary our world of expectation can be uprooted in an instant. We wait for the light of promise where God makes everything new. We hear the words of scripture, “The people who walked in darkness . . . have seen a great light . . . those who lived in a land of darkness . . . on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) We wonder if those words are meant for us. We wonder if God is real . . . or if God is real, why our lives could have fallen so far from our dreams. We wonder, like Mary and Joseph, why following God’s call could take us to such complicated territory, where nothing is going right.
Eventually, in Bethlehem, Mary & Joseph do find a stable to stay in. Hardly the place of choice for a child to be born. God making the best of a bad situation, sets some angels singing in the sky and sends shepherds to congratulate the young couple. One day magi will arrive with gifts. It is enough. It is holy, because they let it be.
The message of Christmas is that God is with us – Emmanuel. In the face of terrible national tragedies, economic upheavals, and our own personal trials of illness, addictions, losses and heartaches, God’s presence encourages and strengthens us. Christmas challenges us to hope against hope that God will prevail. It invites us to believe that the desert places of our hearts and souls will blossom again . . . To know in our hearts that God’s love is big enough – even for us. It asks us to open our hearts to God’s promises and reminds us that in spite of it all, angels still sing.