Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, December 20th, 2020
This is the last Sunday of Advent. In the blink of an eye, Christmas will be here. Presents will be exchanged and opened. And, the countdown to next Christmas will begin, hopefully, it will be an unmasked and unquarantined and sitting in the sanctuary with good friends, kind of Christmas.
As a child, Advent was unknown in the Charles household and Christmas often arrived long before December 25, even before all the Thanksgiving leftovers were consumed. Years later, I still find Christmas appearing in the most unlikely times and unexpected seasons. I have seen Christmas show up in the somber days of Lent and sometimes amid the ecstatic celebration of Pentecost. For Christmas is always more than the 24 hours that begin at the stroke of midnight on December 25 or the twelve days that start then.
The one thing that has never changed about Christmas, whenever it arrives, is that it always arrives in song. Sometimes it has arrived with a performance of Handel’s, Messiah or in Atlanta while listening to the Morehouse and Spellman Choirs sing African and African American Christmas music or in Wilmington, N.C. when caroling with youth in nursing homes and local neighborhoods, or when decorating the tree and listening to our scratchy LP of Bing Crosby crooning, I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Whenever Christmas arrives, it always arrives in song.
It is no wonder that we listen to Luke this Sunday. Luke and song just go together. In addition to Mary’s song that we hear today, earlier Zechariah sings the “Benedictus” and soon the shepherds will sing the “Gloria in Excelsis” and soon after, Simeon will sing the “Nunc Dimittis.” For Luke, the good, often astounding, sometimes perplexing, news of God coming is worthy of song.
When Mary learned that she was a pregnant unwed youth, she did not moan; she sang. When the angels heard that God had made a home with us, they sang. The Bible is silent on this subject, but I suspect that deep into that first Christmas night, looking at his beloved blood-stained son, even terrified, young Joseph sang. For Luke, Christmas and song are simply inseparable.
Years ago, Jennell and I visited our son, Josh, who was studying abroad in Australia. Once there, we traveled an additional thousands of miles across red clay and desert shrub to arrive at Ayer’s Rock or what the Aborigines call Uluru. This massive sandstone rock is a holy site for the Aborigines, the place they believe that life began.
The Aboriginal Creation story tells of ancient beings who wandered over the huge continent of Australia singing out the name of everything that crossed their path; they literally sang the world into existence. In Bruce Chatwin’s, The Songlines, an aboriginal Australian explains to Bruce, “`A song . . . was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country’” (p. 13).
Those sentences were spoken by a 20st century Aborigine, but they could just as easily have been spoken in the first century by Luke. For Luke, Christmas is less about searching for the original site of Jesus’ birth or re-enacting live nativities on church lawns or setting up cute creches above the mantel than it is about knowing the song that can always guide to find our way across the most treacherous and unforeseen country, a song Mary sings long before she gives birth in Bethlehem.
Now, there are lots of songs in the air this time of year. Many are trite at best. Some songs confuse Christmas with getting all that we want. Some songs are a nostalgic yearning for a Christmas that never actually happened, while some songs opine that Christmas is just for children.
Most of the songs in the air have little, if anything, to do with the original Christmas song, the song that Mary sings, the “songline” for us to follow, the song we call “The Magnificat.” The title comes from an early Latin translation of the Bible that reads Magnificat anima mea Dominum, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
It is the first Christmas carol sung and sung before Jesus was yet born. It is a carol that magnifies not all our complaints or all that we are missing and all that we are upset about. Mary magnifies what God is about to do, magnifies what it means for her, for us, to trust the sure promises of God. Mary magnifies and she sings.
Mary sang and so should we whenever Christmas arrives, be it on December 25 or in the heat of a Charlottesville summer. Mary sang about the gift of life pregnant within her. Once that child was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives. Once an adult, the babe born in Bethlehem was met by bad people and people who thought themselves good. I can only imagine the song of grief Mary sang on that horrible day in Golgotha as she watched death wash over the drooping body of her child. But I can well imagine the joy of Mary’s song when she was greeting by angels who announced, “He is not here. He is risen. He is risen, indeed.”
The Aborigines ask visitors not to climb the sacred sandstone mountain, Uluru. They do so not to be inhospitable to strangers, but to ask strangers to respect their songlines that begin at Uluru. On this final Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas Eve, what an opportune time for Christians to recover our songlines, to recapture Mary’s song, learn to magnify what God is doing even in the darkness.
Along with Mary, you and I are invited to sing a Christmas song about feeding and sheltering and nurturing, educating and loving the children that God has given to our trust, and making sure that not one child need ever be born in a barn or consigned to a cage. To sing with Mary is to sing a Christmas song not about a feasting frenzy on December 25, but about making sure the hungry can eat and that policies and structures that keep people hungry are ended.
The Christmas song that Mary sings has little to do with what we will find under the tree on Christmas day; it has everything to do with finding new ways to give away our stuff and ourselves, and not just on one prescribed day of the year. The Christmas song that Mary sings teaches us to look ahead, to be guided by a song that is a “map and direction-finder”; a song that will lead us even across the most rugged terrain of fear and doubt, hopelessness and despair, a terrain pregnant with God’s possibilities and God’s abundant grace.
In the blink of an eye, Christmas will be here. How will we know it has arrived? Not by gazing at any calendar, but by song and not just any song. Christmas arrives when we hear Mary’s song that reminds us that in this moment, in every moment, God is not an arcane afterthought or a seasonal bit of good cheer; God is Emmanuel, a God pregnant with new hope for those who despair, with steady light for those still navigating the darkness.
May those magnificent songlines be the “map and direction-finder” that guide us this Christmas and for the rest of our lives.