It has always seemed a bit humorous or ironic to me that today’s gospel happens to the be the one that closes our Advent season. Though Advent began with the Big Bangs of the promise of the Second Coming of Jesus to set the world aright, and a series of announcements from the Hebrew prophets about how the God of Israel was going to destroy the enemies of the people and usher in a new age of peace and glory, and even tales of a sharp-tongued desert prophet, John the Baptist, telling off all those religious know-it-alls and Roman bad guys, we end on a quiet note: Two women, both unusually and untimely pregnant, in private, probably wondering together what it is all about.
Welcome to Christmas, or almost, and welcome to a vision of the God who we, at least, believe is coming into the world. Despite the seeming promise of early Advent, in which God invades from on high, trouncing the opposition with a glorious campaign, the God who actually shows up appears in the most insignificant of places, in the company of two more or less powerless people—two women, one older and “barren,” one a teenager, both at the bottom end of the political and economic ladder, who despite their joy and praise today, will give birth to sons who both end their lives where they began them—at the bottom of that same ladder, still waiting for the God of Micah in the first reading to show up and set the world aright.
Kind of an odd way to get ready for Christmas—but perhaps the exact right way for the God we seek, the one who is the subject of our praise and thanksgiving. This is not the God of the powers that dominate the world, who promise to attack, invade, and carpet bomb their way to world as it should be. On the contrary, rather than appear as a top-down invading force, this God of ours appears at the bottom, to transform the world-as-it-is from the bottom up, beginning with those who suffer most from the way things are. This is the God we welcome at Christmas.
I suppose we might wish for a more robust sort of deity, one who takes on and defeats the powers that be—though maybe that God would look a bit too much like the harsh, dehumanizing forces already at work in this world. Perhaps, on the other hand, the bottom-up God is the one we have always longed for, the one who shows up when, like Mary and Elizabeth, we find ourselves holding the short end of the stick—pregnant in the wrong place or at the wrong time, part of a religion or cultural group misunderstood or even rejected and oppressed, or even a member of the gender who most often gets left holding the bag. Or maybe we just fell and hit our heads really hard, and find ourselves at the mercy of people we don’t really know.
It turns out that this God of ours not only shows up in those moments, to those people, to us at our weakest and most vulnerable, but even more that’s exactly when this God of ours is most fully present, most fully revealed, and most ready to bring forth the kingdom of mercy, healing, love, and peace we are so hoping for. This is the God of power in weakness, the God—as we Christians tell the story anyway—born in a barn, to a family on the run, with nothing to his name: that’s when the angels start announcing the Savior’s birth and the next moment of what God has intended all along. How appropriate that our first liturgy on Thursday night, then, will be led not so much by those of us in our high churchy finery, but the by the children and youth, who remain most closely connected to the way God comes into the world in Bethlehem.
Which leaves us, or me at least, with something of a conundrum: How to celebrate such a birth at Christmas? Where might we find the Christ child today, knowing full well that what most of the rest of the world is celebrating is only the top frothy layer of the greatest story we’ve ever told. Perhaps we might begin by remembering in ourselves that in our own moments of weakness, dependence, even oppression, that not only have we not lost God’s favor and love in those most difficult moments, but even more that God is laboring within us more than ever in those times to draw forth the grace and mercy that saves the world, and us along with it.
And as we cast our eyes beyond ourselves, as we do in this season, perhaps they may fall with love, even wonder and worship, upon the Elizabeths and Marys and Josephs and Jesuses who still wander this world today— forgotten, oppressed, suffering— and in whom God is surely calling us to come and adore the divine presence coming into the world through them.
In that way we may partner with God, both for them and for us, to bring forth the world as God intends it. Such a Christmas might add a new “M” word to our holiday vocabulary— making in more “meaningful” perhaps—yet in my own heart and I hope in yours, too, it would probably also be merrier than we could ever imagine.