December 22nd – The Story: Going Up to Bethlehem

Luke 2: 1-4

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.

Hush, now. Here is the core of the story. It begins in earnest. The earth is turning toward the birthing of its king. The heavens have started their slow spiral down, down to a Judean town. In an instant in eternity, in the space inside a manger both shall meet like fingers touching.

Governments and peoples, too, are entoiled in the measureless event—though ignorantly, since the company of those who know what God is doing is humble still, and very small.

Governments and peoples, yes, and all the world.

All the world!

The emperor Octavian, whom the people call “Augustus (the sublime one, consecrated and divine); the emperor Octavian, whose other name, Caesar, will grow so grand as to embrace world rulers for millennia hence, Czars and Kaisers—the emperor is unwittingly involved. He decrees a worldly thing, and heaven smiles.

All went to be enrolled. . . .

Then, vastly, humanity itself begins to move, wheels in wheels turning, tribes and tongues and peoples and nations—all caught in the momentum of heavenly revolutions, but unaware. They are moving absently, their heads bent down like oxen at the mill wheel.

Oh, what a puzzlement are the populations of this dark earth! They know not the nearness of God. They elevate their emperors to the status of the divine; but at the descent of true Divinity  they go about their business unaware.

Nevertheless, they go, and their business is heaven’s business in spite of all, because God loves them! God loves them, and that’s the reason for the grand migrations of heaven and earth toward one another in order to meet and marry in the birth of a baby.

Vastly, humanity is moving, while angels as silent as snow fall down from heaven. The peoples are rivers flowing uphill, up from Galilee to Judea.

And here is the precious center of all these universal turnings: a man and a woman are climbing a winding path to Bethlehem. No one notices. They are lowly and all too common. It is evening. They make a small silhouette against the fiery sky.

Long, long have they been traveling. The journey began two thousand years ago when the Lord said to Abraham, In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The woman knows when the journey began. Even now as she labors uphill she sings the soft song in her heart,

He is helping his servant Israel

Remembering the mercy

He uttered to our fathers,

Abraham and his posterity, forever.

The woman knows. Though no one else n all the world may know, yet she knows:

The life inside her is about to become the life of the world.

Ah, but hush. Hush now, my best beloved. For that ancient journey, and the turnings together of heaven and earth, and the imminent collisions of angels and peoples—why, it all began the day before yesterday, when governments decreed enrollments and Joseph and Mary packed a bag in Nazareth and started walking south, to Bethlehem, to the dawning.

O Lord!

And I know it, too! Mary may go calmly toward her Christmas, but I am filled with excitement for mine. O my Lord, God of the little and of the large, your love is as universal as all creation, and yet as particular as my small heart! Here at Christmas, you embrace the nations. Whether they know it, whether they confess it or not, you, Jesus, have saved all people from their sins!

But you are the baby in my cradle, here in my house under my tree. How can such impossibilities be? 

But with God nothing (I know, I know) shall be impossible.


December 21st – An Exaltation: The Fourth Gift, Goodness!

Matthew 1: 24-25

When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took his wife home, but he had no sexual relations with her until she had borne a son, and he called his name Jesus.

The day before we begged for a righteousness like Joseph’s, that selfless obedience to God which is tempered with mercy toward humanity.

Yesterday we realized that our righteousness alone could never repair the covenant between ourselves and the Lord. Mercifully, God himself initiated  that repair with the gift of Jesus, who “finished” it on the cross.

Today our Christmas grows merry, almost giddy, in the discovery of an irony: that the righteousness for which we strove so hard and so failingly suddenly appears within us after all, but as a gift!

O my love, we can be good! Good without some sneaking guilt that we’re deceiving ourselves. Good without a grinning, offensive arrogance. Good and humble and grateful at once. Good and knowing the goodness. Good, good, and glad in it!

For this is not self-righteousness. It is the righteousness of God. Its source is God and not ourselves. It comes near us in Immanuel. And it flows into us through Jesus who “will save his people from their sins,” Jesus whom God made to be sin “sin that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It’s a gift, the consequence of our salvation.

It is like laughter, the hilarity of God—a grand, celestial irony. For in the moment of our salvation, in precisely that moment when we are no longer required to keep the laws of God, lo: we can! Nope, don’t need to. But yep, we’re able!

Now, therefore, we turn to the Ten Commandments without fear of failure. Nor do we feel oppressed by the law. Nor does the law cause a loss of personal liberty. No, we want to keep it. It is our will, in harmony with God’s will.

O my dear, obedience unto God is now our glad thanksgiving for the gifts of Christmas. Obedience is that highest, most noble human accomplishment: honor for God, the creature’s cry of love for its Creator. We, the obedient—we are artists of the divine. We, the righteousness—divinity dwells in us and in the sight of all creation.

So we are like Joseph after all.

At the advent of the Lord within our lives, we waken from our long sleep of sin’s separations.

The invitation is ringing in our ears: Don’t be afraid. Come, join the cosmic drama wherein heaven and humanity meet in the tiny person of a baby.

Take Mary home. Honor the one who bears your Lord to you. Commit your life and all your ways to them—yes, even as if you had married them.

And name him Jesus. Recognize in him the salvation for humankind, then announce it abroad by naming the name.

Arise and obey me.

And this, Christian, becomes the fourth gift of our Christmas, that we do. We can. Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife home.”

Come, Lord Jesus!

You are my righteousness. You are my goodness, the cause and the reason for goodness. You are my life and the light of life. You are my love and all my loving. You are the most noble language I ever can utter, my words and all their meaning, my wisdom, my truth, and the better part of my self.

Come, and I shall be whole.


December 20th – Learn of God: Four Gifts of Christmas

Matthew 1: 20 – 23

Now, as he was considering this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet who said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son; They’ll call his name Immanuel, (meaning God with us).”

But righteousness is never enough!

Yes, Joseph is a just man. And yes, his justice is tempered by mercy, so that Mary’s good name need not be ruined. But justice alone would lead to separation. One man right, one woman wrong, and nothing left between them, neither life nor love nor family—and no child!

Truly, righteousness can create and maintain good order among us. Righteousness will protect the rights and the lives and the properties of individuals. Righteousness defines duties and obligations and privileges. It punishes deviance, purges crime, keeps the social body in health. All this is good and very good. But it is not good enough!

Righteousness may create good order—but it cannot recreate the people so that goodness and order arise from them.

It maintains society by restraining individual sin—but cannot change the individual from sinner to saint!

Something else is required. Something greater than humanity even at its best. Some act so completely divine that no humanity even at its best. Some act so completely no human can ever take the credit: humanity can only take the benefit, for this act must be a gift, pure gift of God.

This act?—this something else? Why, it’s Christmas!

Look how an angel astonishes the man in his sleep. (Sleep always signifies how perfectly passive is the receive: God is the only one active now.) The angel reinterprets the woman’s condition not as her sin but as God’s grace: for as this sleeping man has had nothing to do with the pregnancy, so no man anywhere nor any human activity at all could have caused it. The woman is a virgin. God is the only actor now.

The angel says: The child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God that brooded over the first creation is again at work, causing something as original as that, introducing into the world the Word by which the world was first created! This is grace beyond all righteousness, the gift of Christmas.

And this “child,” says the angel, this “son” shall be a thing, and this “son” shall do a thing.

What shall he be? Immanuel: the presence of holy God among us, in space and time and human community. Our righteousness has not earned this. We have not enticed God here by sweetness, lovableness, goodness, faithfulness, prayers, kneelings, pieties, manifest obediences. Immanuel is here on his own recognizance, according to his own lights and his love.

And what shall he do? Jesus: he shall save his people from their sins. Our natural sinfulness and all our actual sins are the reasons we could never earn the presence of God among us. In fact, we should be as terrified of Immanuel as any fraud is of the truth. But this is the gift that righteousness could never accomplish, that Jesus himself, in coming among us, changes us, making us worthy of his presence, sisters and brothers of the Firstborn of God.

Even a man as just as Joseph should be terrified to be caught up by the cosmic forces that have already snatched his betrothed. But the angel says, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home. And by grace he is not afraid.

And that is the third part of this Christmas gift which is beyond all righteousness: (1) In Jesus God is made present to humanity. (2) Jesus changes us, removing anything that would sever us from God, making us children of his Father. (3) And no fear shall overcome us as nearer and nearer God comes to us. We shall desire the intimacy and delight in it.

No, we shall not fear. Rather, we shall discover within us—as did Joseph when he awoke—the miraculous ability to obey the voice of God.

And that is the fourth gift of Christmas, the consequence of the first three, surprising enough to deserve its own meditation:

Righteousness renewed in us after all!

Come, Lord Jesus:

Come near me. Come, change my sinful nature. Come to me, then, as my brother. Remove all fear from my trembling heart, and make your baby bed within me, where you become all my righteousness and all I need to recommend me to the Father, now and forevermore.


December 19th – Learn of Joseph: The Character of Righteousness

Luke 1:56

Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

Matthew 1:18-19

Now, the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way:

His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph; but before they came together, she was found to be with child—by the Holy Spirit.

Joseph her husband was a just man, but was unwilling to put her to shame; so he resolved to divorce her quietly.

Joseph, the carpenter;

Joseph, a common man caught up in cosmic affairs;

Joseph, known to his neighbors, yet so unassuming that he sinks swiftly from biblical sight (indeed, this episode in Matthew is the single personal story by which we might really meet the man);

Joseph, more mute in the Gospels than Zechariah since the words of the latter are recorded in talk and in song, but of the former there are no words remembered, none;

Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus—

Joseph is a just man.

Because the Evangelists say so little about him, each word must bear enormous importance: Joseph is an “upright” man. For raising his child, papa Joseph shall be the very model of a righteous man—not so much in what he says as in what he does.

So, let’s examine it: what does he? What is righteousness, as revealed in this brief episode of rights and choices regarding the life of another?

Mary was found to be with child . . . .

Until the angel enlightens him with a holier explanation, the evidence speaks for itself. Mary has committed adultery. Betrothal binds two people as completely as marriage itself, even though they don’t yet live together or engage in sexual activity. So Mary has broken the Law, and the Law defines the consequence.

The woman charged with so serious a crime as adultery shall be stoned (Deut. 22: 20-21).

But Joseph?

He resolved to divorce her quietly. He has some legal discretion here, and he chooses, Joseph chooses, not to accuse her of the crime, neither publicly nor privately. He will make no accusation at all, though he has every right to do so.

So this is what that righteous man is not: he is not self-centered! If Joseph suffers a blow to his ego, his masculinity, his stallion pride, we don’t see it. He shows no anger, no public outrage, no withering scorn. He doesn’t pull a gun on her. He doesn’t beat her. He doesn’t  launch a campaign to smear her. He never says, “She owes me” or “She’ll pay for this,” as if her sin owes something to him. Mary’s adultery seems to have absolutely nothing to do with his reputation! And the righteous man does not view justice as something he receives for damages.

But today, in systems of law that ignore God altogether, and in hearts too filled with selves, folks demand justice as their own due! “She’ll pay for this” means “I’ll get that pay!” And we seek punishment to satisfy nothing but ourselves.

And Joseph?

He resolved to divorce her. . . . Though he chooses to do it quietly, he nevertheless chooses to divorce her.

Neither, then, is the righteous man the romantic hero who flouts laws and traditions for the sake of some higher individuality. Just as Joseph’s decision doesn’t center on himself, so it does not center on Mary or on their relationship as if that were the true nobility of humanity.

Joseph does not cry “Love conquers all!” He cannot make a small world of himself and his true love alone. He won’t (as do so many today) exchange the restraints of God and one’s culture for sweet, explosive emotions or for some fierce individuality that knows better than all the ancestors and all the parents combined.

No, Joseph’s righteousness (1) honors God and God’s will above the will of the self and even above the love of another. But it (2) is tempered by mercy.

Joseph resolves to keep the law, yes, but with such lenience that Mary’s life will not be destroyed in the process. There will be no accusation, no trial at all (though a trial by ordeal is indicated where no witness can be found, cf. Num. 5: 11-31), no public shame, nothing save the writ of divorce and two witnesses.

What, then, is righteousness? These two things: the obedience we owe to God and the mercy God grants us to grant others. It looks first to God, second to the other, never to the self—yet the self experiences a most holy peace in these relationships.

Come Lord Jesus:

Come, live in my heart as you lived in the house of Joseph. I yearn to be as righteous as he. O Lord, become the source of righteousness in me.


December 18th – An Exhortation: Serve as Zechariah Defines Service

Luke 1: 67 – 79:

And Zechariah his father was filled with the Holy Spirit, so that he prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel:

for he has visited and redeemed his people, and raised up for us a horn of salvation in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; performing the mercy promised to our fathers, and remembering his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to grant that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sings, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon up from on high to give light to those who site in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Give us the broom for making us clean.

With that abrupt prayer we ended our last meditation from December 17th—since perhaps we had noticed in our Christmas preparations a lack of readiness for the reappearing of Jesus “in his glory, all the angels with him, when he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt. 25:31).

We pray first to learn what we ought to be to meet our King.

And second we pray to learn how we might become it.

And lo: Zechariah’s song—turning our attentions again to John the Baptist—answers both our beggings.

What, then, shall we be?

Servants, as Mary was, surely: so completely committed to this sacred service that it becomes our life’s purpose; it shapes all our behavior; it defines, then, even our personhood. “This,” said Mary, “is who I am. This is my identity. I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Her body and soul together were given unto God, for God’s word dwelt in her not only as an infant, but more especially as the very substance of her obedience. In this latter way may the word of God take flesh and breath in our flesh and spirits too: by our obeying it!

But the word used in verse 74 for “to serve” implies something more than menial obedience. It is a religious service, a particular devotion. It turns all our common life into a worship.

Without fear: serving this particular Lord grants us such protection that no enemy shall ever break through to destroy us.  We need not fear the world. Moreover, this particular Lord does not oppress us into his service. We choose (“Let it be to me according to your word”). Neither, then, do we cringe and grin, serving because we fear him.

In holiness and righteousness: these are characteristics of a covenant people. This righteousness are those who stand in a right relationship with God, trusting him above every created thing (above parents, spouses, one’s own abilities, money) and performing with joy the requirements that come with this particular covenant (loving one another as Jesus has loved us). The holy, likewise, are those whose relationship with God separates them (even as God is separate) from the godless world. They neither serve the world nor take their identity from the world’s standards, judgments, opinions, delights, behaviors. They are strangers here. But they are also, therefore, free and fearless!

Even so ought we to be when our Lord returns: a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

But how might we become that?

Why, turn to the Lord whom the Baptist proclaimed—and discover what God in him has already accomplished.

He has raised up for us a horn of salvation (v. 69). This “horn” is an image remembered from the Old Testament. A powerful ox establishes its four hoofs on the ground and raises it head, alert to danger, confident in its strength. With its head is raised the horn, which signifies, then, the might of the entire beast. That same horn, signifying victory, appeared on the helmets of warriors—and soon stood for the triumph of the Messianic king from the House of David. It also appeared on the corners of Israel’s sacred altars, signs of the omnipotence of the Most High.

But the verb which Luke uses here for “raised up” is unusual. In the Old Testament it’s commonly used as an act of God who “raises up” his people. In Luke’s language it is used regarding Jesus, whom God has “raised up” from the dead (Acts 4:10-12)! So the early Christian church recognized that Jesus was himself the “horn of salvation.” It is Jesus who makes the strength of God and the victory of his people real after all!

Turn unto him in order to turn into servants of the Lord, for in him is “the forgiveness of our sins” (v. 77). An Advent “turning to Jesus” requires three actions.

Let us seriously examine ourselves.

Let us genuinely confess the sins discovered within us, naming them before the altar and the horn of our salvation, Jesus.

Let us then fall completely upon “the tender mercy of our God” (v. 78). Tender means literally “the innermost parts of mercy,” which parts are the heart, the lungs and the liver of a living body, the chambers of deepest emotion.

But these are God’s innermost parts. Fall, then, upon the bosom of the Lord, whose mercy is as deep and as certain as his holy heart!

His forgiveness is likewise certain. It is his act, then, that shall raise you up again, his servant “all the days of your life.”

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,

Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;

Because thy promise I believe,

O Lamb of God, I come.

I come.

December 17th – A Teaching: What John Becomes for Every Advent

Luke 1: 63—66:

Zechariah asked for a writing tablet, then astonished everyone by writing, His name is John. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue loosed, and he began to utter praises to God.

Fear fell on their neighbors. These events were discussed throughout the whole hill country of Judea, and all who heard them stored them in their hearts, wondering, “What will this child become, then?”—for the hand of the Lord was with him . . . .

As the child grew up, he became strong in the spirit, and he stayed in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance in Israel.

Here, in Luke’s telling, are five marvelous and fearful events that surrounded the birth of John, evidence that the Lord was up to something.

—She who conceived him and bore him was very old.

—At this circumcision, his mother chose an odd name, and though the father was deaf to it, he wrote in clay the self-same name. What a tremendous, mystery harmony between these two!

—But that harmony came straight form God, since their common act was the first fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophecy to Zechariah: You shall call his name John.

—The second angelic prophecy had already been fulfilled, for there were “many rejoicing at this birth” (compare vv. 14 and 58).

—And the third prophecy was fulfilled the instant Zechariah wrote John. Though friends and relatives could not have realized that Zechariah’s action was directly connected to heaven, the action itself was marvelous enough to astonish them. For suddenly the man who had been mute nine months erupted voluble praises to God.

No, this was no common birth. Yes, the hand of the Lord was clearly with this infant. What, then, would the Lord require of him hereafter? What was his function in the plans of God?

What, the people wondered, will this child become?

By this question and by that concluding reference to the child’s life “in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance,” Luke’s story forces us to contemplate what the child in fact became: John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ “

Christian, that advent of Jesus two thousand years ago is not the actual Advent yet to come for us.

As John, who cried Prepare to Israel, was the messenger of that first appearing, so John is the messenger now of the reappearing, the Second Coming of Christ!

Still, still he cries: Prepare!

Are we listening?

Do we, who are busy preparing for Christmas, parties and presents and decorations and food and church programs—and visitors—do we prepare with equal fervor for the visitation of the Lord?

What sort of Advent is the imminent Advent for you? If you are consumed by one more Christmas (one mere Christmas among two-thousand) your Advent is fleeting, time-bound, and likely self-absorbed. Desperate preparations often indicate an anxiety about the opinions of others regarding ourselves. But if your participation in this temporal Advent truly signifies preparations for the final Advent, you are Christ-absorbed.

An anonymous poem, written when there were still kings in the land, expresses the failure to read the marvelous and fearful signs that surround the holy birth:

Yet, if His Majesty, our sovereign Lord,

Should of his own accord

Friendly himself invite

And say, “I’ll be your guest tomorrow night”—

How should we stir ourselves, call and command

All hands to work: “Let no man idle stand;

Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall;

See they by fitted all,

That there be room to eat

And order taken that there want no meat;

See every sconce and candlestick made bright

That without tapers they may give a light;

Look to the presents; are the carpets spread?

The daisy o’er the head?

The cushions in the chairs?

And all the candles lighted on the stairs?

Perfume the chambers and in any case

Let each man give attendance in this place.”

December 15th – Mary’s Song: Echoing the Songs of Prophets and Angels

Luke 1: 46—56:

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaidens.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel in the remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months, then returned home.

It has begun: the song that the prophet Habakkuk sang centuries ago it being fulfilled!

Habakkuk’s hymn ends:

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord!

I will joy in the God of my salvation!

God, the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like hinds’ feet;

he makes me walk on my high places!

Mary’s words “God, my Savior” are the same in Greek as Habakkuk’s, “God of my salvation.”

From two sides  of the promises of God, a man and a woman sing duet. He has heard the promise-word, and believes it. She’s been told of promise-keeping, and believes it. Salvation is surely coming to the people of God, and time itself collapses, all chronology contracts into that single fierce and burning moment when God acts among us.

But even as she sings across the times a duet with the prophet of old, Mary is singing across the worlds a duet with another figure altogether.

What, when God communicates a blessed message, is the first best thing to do with it? Why, tell it.

And how shall your joy affect the telling? How shall faith and gladness send the message straight to the hearts of your hearers? O Christian, sing it with highest delight!

Listen with remembering ears to the song that Mary sings, and you will find that Gabriel’s message has swiftly been given a human voice (both for Elizabeth and for “all generations” thereafter). It never is just the intellectual meaning of the words that captures the messages of the Almighty! The messages consist as well of things that must be felt, experienced: God’s ineffable love, our emotional and spiritual responses, elements whose truth cannot be objectively analyzed nor reduced to doctrine.

Praise and thanksgiving require more than our brains. They want our laughter, our capering bodies, our trembling delight, smiles and the sweet flush of delight—and song. Praise must be sung.

So Mary sings a duet with the angel, a celestial song that transcends all worlds, for the flaming servants of God do join our grateful, faithful choirs:

The power of the Most High will overshadow you, sang Gabriel, and Mary refrains that word “power” in the word “mighty”: He who is mighty has done great things for me.

Of the child to be born, Gabriel sang, He will be great, and Mary echoes the word: Great things for me!

Well, and we know what great things, don’t we? We ought to. We, too, are recipients.

In her life and in her child—they become great things for “all who fear him.” Her praise is generous. What is being done for Mary personally will embrace the faithful generally.

And as Gabriel sang: Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy—Son of God, so Mary sings: And holy is his name!

And as Gabriel sang: Of his kingdom there will be no end, so Mary sings the same endlessness—again, embracing the many: His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.

So Mary sings with the prophet of old to show what promises God is keeping in her present.

And Mary sings with the angel of heaven to show how the events of her present shall embrace all future generations.

We are that future. We are embraced.

But who are we?

The proud look down on others because they do not look up to God.

We are, apart from God, those of low degree. We must be the hungry and the poor. It cannot be otherwise! No, it can’t—or we would never, when God exalts us after all, sing as Mary sang: spontaneous praises and thanksgivings.

Now praise we Christ, the holy one,

The blessed virgin Mary’s son,

Far as the glorious sun doth shine

E’en to the world’s remote confine.

All honor unto Christ be paid,

Pure offspring of the favored maid,

With Father and with Holy Ghost,

Till time in endless time be lost.

(Coelius Sedulius, c. 450; German version, Luther, 1524)

December 14th – An Effusion: What Singing at the Advent of Our King!

Luke 1: 46—49:

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of handmaidens.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

They’re singing songs in Palestine! They can’t help it: canticles rise to their lips and to the ears of God spontaneously.

Gabriel twice has sung his sacred messages. Elizabeth breaks into song: “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

And that’s only the beginning.

Soon the mute Zechariah will do more than utter prosaic sentences; he’ll sing a Benedictus at the birth of his son, the prophet of the Most High.

Then Gabriel will return to chant good news to the shepherds, and straightway he’ll be joined by the whirling hosts of heaven, the angels of God in thunderous chorus: Gloria in Excelsis!

And still the people of Palestine sing—in older broken tones: for Simeon has a closing hymn, the Nunc Dimmittis of his personal departure.

Altogether they create a thrilling exchange between heaven and earth. Oh!—I wish I could hear the antiphony. Gabriel and all the angels descending; earthbound throats whose songs ascend to heaven, worshipers not recalling some wonderful moment, but living the moment, knowing the moment, responding in the extremes of human awareness and art and high articulation.

O Lord, you are the musician, and we all your instruments. You breathe, and we come to life. You breathe, and we are horns for your glory. You blow through the world the winds of the spirit, and we like chimes cannot keep silent. You pluck the strings of our hearts, and we become a psalm.

You come, and we must sing.

And now your Son is entering here, our dirty sphere, voiding himself of power to be born in human form. The hand of heaven is touching people as it never has before! Mary can’t help it. The cause of song is in her womb. She is transfigured. And if the woman had been born with the voice of frog, it doesn’t matter: she is God’s minstrel now.

My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden . . .

Holy is his name!

We will sing carols again this Christmas.

Fill them, O Jesus!

Fill our hearts with your love.

Fill our songs with windy Spirit.

Let nothing we sing be empty or noxious or foolish or false.

For if you will be the cause of our carols,

then we will have joined the heavenly choirs.

We, with Mary, may be transported,

and joy will shed joy on everyone.


December 13th – Elizabeth’s Blessing: Makes Mary a Model for the Faithful

Luke 1: 41b—45

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed with a loud cry:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment your greetings sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb jumped with gladness. Oh, how fortunate is she who believed that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled!”

Now Elizabeth cries blessings upon Mary; and because the Holy Spirit is the source of her word, that word is both true and deep in its truth. It reveals much about the mother of Jesus.

Moreover, it sets Mary up as a model for us, that we might know both the cause of her blessedness, and its quality.

Come: with Mary join the family of Jesus—

  1. Elizabeth points out the defining characteristics in Mary, the personal cause of her good fortune: “Fortunate (blessed!) is she who believed that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.”

This is precisely what happened in the exchange between Mary and the messenger of the Lord: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

And to this promise of a miraculous birth, Mary brought the faith that engenders obedience. She believed the Lord’s words, saying: “Let it happen to me according to your word.”

Quickly, my friend, turn to Luke 11: 27—28 where Jesus himself declares what made Mary most fortunate. An anonymous woman cries out that it must be Mary’s physical motherhood: “How fortunate is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked!”

But Jesus revises the reasons for good fortune—and in the process he invites you and me as well to become kin to him as closely as his mother was kin: “No! Rather, fortunate are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

That’s Mary! She receives the word of God in faith, and faith in her becomes obedience. That, is the cause of the good fortune which Elizabeth immediately recognizes.

Again, friend, turn quickly to Luke 8:19—21 in order to hear this invitation into the family of Jesus yet more clearly. When someone tells Jesus that his “mother and brothers are waiting outside,” Jesus replies with the real cause of kinship: Who are his mother and his brothers? “Those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Yep, that’s Mary. And this particular means for joining the family of Jesus is one we all might share.

2. Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary reveals truths below the touchable surface of mere fact. In the Spirit she utters as well the quality of Mary’s blessed state—again, one which all who hear and keep the word of God might share.

In order to find the first model of Elizabeth’s exclamation, turn to Deuteronomy 28. Moses is standing on the banks of the Jordan River. The children of Israel are just about to cross over, into the land that God had promised them. Moses will not go with them, but his blessings will—so long as “You, ” O Israel, “obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day.”

Look closely at verse 4: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your body. . . .”

It is not accidental  that this blessing is repeated by Elizabeth to Mary: Blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Now, then, read the expanded blessing which Moses grants to those who obey, to Israel at the edge of the fulfillment of God’s promise, and to us at the edge of the fulfillment of God’s promise, and to us at the edge of the coming of Christ, at the edge of Christmas. “All these blessings shall come upon you, if you obey: Blessed in the city; blessed in the field; blessed the fruit of your body and of your ground, the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle, the young of your flock; blessed the basket and your kneading through—and you yourself, when you come in and when you go out.”

God shall be our God, and God our providence. That is the quality of the blessing: a Christmas of abundant giving, equal not to our selfish desiring, but to our need.

3. But in this next Old Testament source for Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, Mary is discovered to stand alone: this one is hers uniquely, though we all take the benefit.

Turn to Judges 5: 24ff. Deborah—a woman like Elizabeth singing in the Spirit of the Lord—utters blessing upon Jael in a form which the Spirit chooses for Mary.

Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women.

Deborah: “Blessed among women be Jael.”

Why? What has Jael done? She, one humble woman acting alone, struck the commander of the Canaanite forces, struck the leader of the enemies of the people of God, with a killing blow.

Likewise, Mary alone bore Christ into the world. This humble woman brought forth our Savior, who would himself strike down the forces that desire our defeat, sin and death and the devil!

So perish all thine enemies O Lord!

But thy friends be like the sun as he rises in his might!

Mary may be like Jael. She may stand for Israel and for all the family of Jesus, too.

But Elizabeth is Moses and Deborah, mighty voices of God.

O Lord:

What a wondrous weave your word creates throughout the history of your people! Certain themes keep reappearing, till finally I learn the richness of your love.

So the Christmas story regathers the words you’ve spoken before. And this Christmas repeats all the Christmases I’ve ever celebrated. Slowly, slowly I’m learning.


December 12th – The Story: Two Mothers Meet

Luke 1: 39—41a:

In those days Mary arose and went hastily into the hill country to a Judean city. There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby jumped in her womb.

Laugh, Elizabeth! Laugh with excitement. Something’s coming. Something’s happening. Like springtime in winter, it’s not just you who’s pregnant. The infant within you—he’s not the only thing about to burst new into creation.

Behold, says the Lord, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth: do you not perceive it? (Isa. 43:19).

For whatever reason (we don’t know the reason) old Elizabeth has kept her condition a secret all these months. Who else knows that she is pregnant? Zechariah. Her husband, who goes about his business in a mute, grinning hilarity. But he can keep a secret.

So now one else knows about it!

Yet all at once Elizabeth is peering in a mirror, for here is someone who knows what she knows. She’s peering in a rich, three-dimensional mirror, for here is the body of one who’s experiencing what she is experiencing. And the mirror she peers in, why, it is also a window! For it opens up on a wonderful vista, broader than two women and two pregnancies put together!

Elizabeth is dozing on the roof of her house. It has become her habit to take brief midday naps because her old bones are unused to the weight of the baby and the plain labor it adds to her every waking motion.

Suddenly, as if the air itself has rung, she snaps awake, all her senses trembling. She can hear footsteps, small and swift and far away. Someone is running on tiptoe. Elizabeth feels a pressure on her chest, as if the weather were changing toward storm—yet she can, it seems to her, taste the very radiance of the sun. Something’s happening! Someone’s coming!

Elizabeth lifts herself and looks over the parapet of the roof. Yes! Yes, a woman is running the hills in her direction. Very intent. Filled with purpose and a certain knowledge. Who?—

Immediately Elizabeth knows who! She can’t see the features, but she recognizes the posture and the gestures, the bold pitching of her arms in time with her feet: it’s her kinswoman. Mary. But why?—

The old woman stands up and arranges her robes. She descends the ladder on the far side of the house into her courtyard. It doesn’t take but a second, yet the instant her foot touches ground, there is Mary, as big as life, entering the doorway, beaming!

Elizabeth gaps. She can’t breathe. Mary’s bright eye (something’s strange!) is piercing Elizabeth even to the secret in her soul. Mary knows! Here is the mirror of her mind. They’ve told no one, no one—yet this eager young woman knows that she, in spite of her old age, has conceived a baby in her womb and is pregnant. (Who told her? What’s happening?)

Mary blooms. Like an opening rose, her whole being unfolds before Elizabeth, and in greeting she utters her kinswoman’s name. She whispers, “Elizabeth!”

And straightway Elizabeth, too, flushes with a bright, pink joy and recognition. The sound of Mary’s voice is so familiar! It sends forth news even as blossoms release their scent upon the wind: Mary, too, is pregnant! (Something’s happening!) Elizabeth is on the edge of tears, for here in young, flesh Mary is the mirror of her own condition: sisters, sisters! They are both with child!

But before the tears drop; before the woman can rush her cousin to hug her; before she can utter the first word of greeting in return, the tiny prophet low in her womb expresses his first prophecy! Already filled with the Holy Spirit, already preparing the way, the baby leaps for joy at the sound of the voice of the mother of his Lord!

Oh, yes, something wonderful is happening! A new thing is springing forth into the world. All at once Elizabeth knows what it is, for she sees through window of her cousin’s condition into the mind of God: this is the Messiah!

And old Elizabeth can scarcely stand the excitement:

“Who am I?” she cries with a loud voice. “Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

And so it begins. Now more than one is aware of the Advent stirring in the world: there are two who know. And each confirms the glad anticipation of the other. Two is a communion. Two is necessary. Two is a perfect circle: one to speak it, one to hear. The word is real. Christ is coming!

Christmas is coming!

Christmas is coming! O Lord, my heart is hammering, my chest grows taut with excitement: you are coming! How can I help but laugh?

Dear Lord, then send me one other, one blessed other person with whom to share my joy, one to hear me utter my faith in you, one to speak faith in return.

Christmas is coming!