This is a Christmas Reflection written for the Glasgow University Theology and Religious Studies Student Society service. You can download the Order of Service here. My opening prayer (not included in the Order) is at the bottom
I don’t know if any of you are fans of period dramas - maybe a bit of Jane Austen, or some Downton Abbey - but I think there will always be a part of me that feels like today’s reading is a bit of period drama. Young lady caught in the family way is sent off to a relative in the hill country during her pregnancy.
There’s also a sense here of Mary being able to visit and spend time with probably the only person in the world who might have any idea what she is going through. And so the young, unmarried virgin, and the post-menopausal barren woman meet together to talk over their highly unlikely pregnancies.
And as this young woman arrives at her relative’s house, and as she says hello to Elizabeth, now sixth months pregnant, the Holy Spirit fills her and speaks this word of prophecy to Mary. The blessed one who believed.
What a relief it must have been that day, realising that Elizabeth understood a little what was happening. Imagine what it must of been like for Mary at that time. How confusing and awkward and embarrassing. But maybe also a bit exciting, hopeful, but certainly daunting.
And yet there is no way she could have imagined what was going to happen over the next few months. The long journey to Bethlehem. The uncomfortable birth - not that there’s such a thing as a comfortable birth - amongst the animals. The weird shepherds. The even weirder wise men. Running away to Egypt with the news of an infant slaughter on their heels.
And yet even with all those memories, I wonder too if the novelty wore off. Jesus growing up and being, well, normal. Having more children - at least 4 sons and more than one daughter that we know of, but with child mortality rates at that time it could’ve been more. What was it like in the Bar-Joseph family? I’m sure one or two of us have siblings who are perfect, and who our mum and dad think are divine….
But did the sheen wear off? Did the expectations grow less over time? Most parents are fascinated with every new aspect of their first baby. The first smile. The first laugh. The first words. I’m sure Mary and Joseph were the same. But was there something more? Waiting for him to do something truly extraordinary? And then maybe there was some disappointment? The child who had so much potential, but never seemed to live up to it? Maybe things turned out to be, well, ordinary. Even a bit dull.
Earlier this year, the American pastor and author Eugene Peterson died. He had written a number of influential books, but will always be best known, certainly in the UK, for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. At this time of year, it will most likely be rolled out in a number of churches to bring a bit of new life to the tired old stories of Christmas. And I’d put good money on many churches using the phrase taken from chapter one of John’s gospel, where it says that “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”
At the centre of the Christmas story, with all the extraordinary events that surround it, is something very ordinary - the birth of a child. Christmas is, ultimately, about the meeting point between the extraordinary and the ordinary.
There’s a quote on the back of your order of service from G. K. Chesterton. It says this:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
I love the idea that God - the extraordinary - is able to exult in monotony - in the ordinary. I love the picture of the eternal God engaging with the world in the creation of each daisy. The Almighty Creator connecting with the created world in every little detail. The God of the “do it again.”
Most people’s idea of God is not like this. God is much more distant - a kind of heavenly headmaster that you get sent to when you’re naughty. A God who seems perpetually disappointed in our life choices and our failures. A God who maybe offers forgiveness, but it’s somewhat begrudgingly. Forgiveness with a “tut-tut.”
But what if God is actually far more invested in us than that? What if, instead of a reluctant forgiveness, God truly finds delight in each moment of forgiveness? That, in the moment of the extraordinary meeting the ordinary with love, He’s saying “again, again.” Not that He delights in sin, but that He delights in the loving act of forgiveness and never, ever gets bored of it.
So this year, for every boring Christmas moment, let’s remember that God is offering us His “again, again”, the extraordinary touching the ordinary.
Coming King, in this time of hustle and bustle,
Of essays and exams,
May we find you, the Prince of Peace.
In this time of families and feasting,
Of relaxing and laughing,
May we know you, Everlasting Father.
In this time of giving and receiving,
Of loving and being loved,
May we receive the gift you gave,
Your love made flesh in Jesus.