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Readings: Luke 1:39-45; Finding Joy in Unexpected Places

When Elizabeth tells her cousin, “How happy you are to believe the Lord’s message!” I imagine Zechariah listening from the other room. Is this something of a pointed comment about him? See, the first story in Luke is about him. Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless, even though they were good people. When Zechariah was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to announce the coming birth of John the Baptist. When he protested, “But we’re old!” the angel struck him mute (I imagine that move came under administrative review). Now Zechariah won’t speak until he sings at John the Baptist’s birth, because he didn’t believe.

There’s often good reason not to believe; it can seem there’s no way open toward our hopes. Pregnancy had been impossible for Zechariah and Elizabeth, especially now in their advanced age. It must have been hard for Mary to believe. To have a child without support would have been a kind of living death, where the best case would have been for her to be dismissed by Joseph and go back to her father’s house unwed. It’s often hard for us to believe when Christmas seems like a choice between stress, bills, disappointment, or loneliness – and often all of those at the same time. And of course there was new reason not to believe last week, with news of the incomprehensible shootings in Connecticut. There are old reasons not to believe too: tragedies, losses, and disappointments (and the anniversaries of them) conspire to abolish Christmas for us.

If that didn’t ruin Christmas, the rest of this story would. Both John the Baptist’s and Jesus of Nazareth’s stories lead to tragedy; one is beheaded by Herod, and the other is crucified by Pilate. It’s especially painful today knowing that these yet-unborn babies will die, as of course any of us will. Trouble and sorrow are part of being human – and that’s kind of the point. As much as I love the magic, sparkle, and feeling of Christmas, the sentiment fades and everyday life returns. Peppermint frosting only goes so far. Many people face the terrible weight of life this Christmas. Some are burdened by it every Christmas. Even in this happy story, the darkness is present.

And yet, John in the womb leaps at the voice of Jesus’ mother, and Elizabeth’s joy shines forth. And yet, something rises up within us – something in us leaps and praises God, not for avoiding tragedy but for refusing to let it prevail. If Christmas were just about warm fuzzy feelings, it would collapse soon as the tree turns brown and the lights come down – likely even sooner. But we know it doesn’t doe that. There’s something there that lives on in the face of tragedy.

Tragedy doesn’t just take lives and steal Christmas. It tries to pull us apart. Many schools and other institutions were on lockdown that Friday and throughout last week. There are frequently spikes in violence against people of color after terrorist attacks. In the face of tragedy, Jesus’ followers denied him and each other, then retreated in fear. Tragedy’s natural effect is its tendency to pull people away from each other.

But tragedy doesn’t succeed at this. It didn’t take long last week before people started connecting through tangible support and symbolic actions. Jesus’ story doesn’t end with death, it ends with rising to life again. Christmas begins something long and complicated, but something ultimately good. People always come back together, recognize what we share, and choose to redeem the darkness by shining lights together in it. It’s almost as if we forget the dark layers of the story even before the light arrives – but there’s a difference between denying the darkness and lighting a candle. The news has told us of many candles lit this week. There have been Christmas trees given, gun violence and mental illness discussed, and children loved just a little bit more tenderly.

There was also news last week of a candle lit long ago. Archaeologists reported on the discovery of a stone-age village where one member was paralyzed by a disease that left him unable to move and feed himself. A tragic understanding of the world would expect the other villagers to put him out as a drain on their resources, but instead, the evidence shows that they must have nursed him for ten years. Other very ancient people showed compassion like this. Love is alive, even long ago.

Mary sees this love. In a world where violence, fear, and sadness could separate us, she sings about a love that upsets all our expectations. Mary sings about God honoring the lowly, deposing the mighty, and feeding the hungry – a love in Christ that turns the world upside down. More truly, it’s a love that turns the world right side up, the way God would have it. A world where even the deepest darkness turns to light. We’ll sing with her in a moment. Notice as we do that the song is in the present tense. This is not something that will happen, it’s something that already happens among us. May we all trust and rejoice in what God is doing among us.