Looking at Mary, the Magi, the Shepherds, Elizabeth and Joseph and their responses to Incarnation.
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Five responses to Christmas
As the school holidays are drawing near, I thought I’d end 2015’s EmmDevs with some reflections on the lessons we can learn from some of the main characters in the Christmas story…
Mary: Thoughtful Wonder
|19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart…
51 … But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.      (Luke2:19-51)
Mary sets an amazing example. She responds to God’s gracious favour and the announcement of her miraculous pregnancy with significant faith and humility. “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” (Luk.1:38)
Later, when John the Baptist has done a happy dance in Elizabeth’s womb Mary bursts forth with what we now call “the Magnificat” – a hymn which reflects a significant understanding of who God is, what the Messiah came to do, and her part in all of it.
Mary is Mom to the Son of God and is present at the cross where, as Simeon prophesied, a sword would pierce her own soul. She then became an important part of the life of the early church and her son, James would emerge as the head of the church.
Mary was not perfect^ but there is a lot we can learn from her faithfulness and devotion.
But what was Mary’s secret? I believe it is the attitude of thoughtful wonder. Luke affirms this twice over in Lk.2:19 & 51.
Mary observed the birth, the shepherds, the magi and pondered and treasured them. She reflected on the 12 year old Jesus surrounded by flabbergasted teachers of the law and treasured these thoughts.
We can know the Christmas story. But have we pondered and treasured it?
Maybe we should resolve to enter into this Advent season with an attitude of thoughtful wonder. So what if the the shops are decorating and playing carols already – can we not use this as an opportunity to reflect on the wonder of a Baby’s birth that is still impacting the world and prompting acts of kindness and beauty?? Dust off the carols and the nativity scenes, re-read the gospel accounts of Jesus birth, marvel at John’s poetic prologue about the “Word made Flesh,” immerse yourself in the wonderful celebration of the greatest gift ever given to humankind. See the Christmas story through the eyes of a child. Treasure these thoughts and ponder them.
^(While some consider Mary to be without sin or failure, Scripture reveals her to be fallible and prone to a lack of understanding and mistakes – just as we are:
- She didn’t know that Jesus would be in His Father’s house. Lk.2:49
- At one point during Jesus public ministry she and her sons came to take charge of Jesus for they considered him to be out of his mind. Mk.3:21
So she was not perfect or sinless, but faithful.)
Magi: Obedient Adventurers
|After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
…10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Ironically, the “east” these star-following wise-men probably came from was the area of Babylon and Persia (which was (in)famous for its astrologers and where horoscoping comes from). It was to the Babylonians that the prophet Isaiah wrote:
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing. (Isa.40:26)
These Magi were attentive to the signs that were visible in nature and instead of exploiting nature’s signposts for their own ends, they were simply obedient to what they heard and saw.
Imagine packing up and heading off on a long and dangerous journey just to follow a star! (If you haven’t read TS Elliot’s “Journey of the Magi” you should read it after this…) The Magi were not only obedient to God’s prompting, but they were courageous enough to head off on an adventurous journey and gutsy enough to defy Herod’s wishes.
What would the modern day Magi look like today? And how could we be like them?
Firstly I think one needs to be sensitive to the “signs of the times” – not astrology per se – but rather a being sensitive to what God might be doing in our world that many others aren’t seeing. The writer of Chronicles talks about the men of men of Issachar, “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do…” (1Chron12:32)
Secondly we need to be sensitive and obedient to the promptings and responsive to the signs and needs that God is drawing our attention to. We need to be willing to go and willing to be prompted. The Magi followed the star’s guidance, but also listened to the dream they had about Herod. But their greatest sensitivity is shown in the gifts they bring: Gold symbolising Jesus’ kingship, Myrrh which anticipated Jesus sacrificial death and Frankinsense which pointed to His role as our priest.
Thirdly, we need a courageous adventurousness that would take us into the unknown and uncharted, just because we believe that we will find what God is doing there and that we would do it with a sense of worshipful extravagance!
|And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
…15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.      (Luke2:8-18)
Scholars are divided about the shepherds: Some identify them as being on the criminal and deviant fringe of society – dishonest, unscrupulous, thieving, cruel, irreverent and undesirable. Other scholars suggest that they were the shepherds in charge of the temple passover lambs and that, as such, they were a special group of shepherds with a holy task.
I prefer the first option.
If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, then it is fitting that the Good News of His birth would be extended to those who were far from God. If these were the elite passover-lambs-shepherds then the implication is that the Good News is only for those that are good enough. As nice as the theological connection with Passover Lambs and Jesus-the-Lamb-of-God is, I think the angel’s use of “Good News” (the Greek word is where we get “gospel” from) is a clue to the nature of this encounter.
Look at their journey:
- The angels appear and the shepherds are terrified. The Greek literally says: They feared (with) a mega fear. This is not holy reverence – this is genuine terror. Was it the holy splendour of the angels or their guilty consciences? Maybe a bit of both…
- The shepherds, after seeing the host of angels, are obedient. One can only imagine that the incredible joy of the angels made the shepherds brave enough and hungry enough to “go” and “see.”
- They see Jesus and it changes their lives! I just imagine these rough tough men holding the new-born Jesus in their arms, maybe caressing a smooth cheek with a rough knuckle with tears coursing down their cheeks – “God has come to us – He has really come!”
- They start telling others. We should not forget that Bethlehem was full because of the census. One has to imagine that there were some soldiers and representatives of Rome officiating over the census. The disturbance the shepherds cause in the night would cause some ripples – but this does not stop them.
- Others take them seriously. The shepherds are not dismissed as mischievous, crazy or intoxicated – people are amazed at the message of the shepherds and it is in no small part because it is obvious that something special has happened to these men.
The story of the shepherds is the story of every Christian witness:
We did not expect or deserve the Good News of Jesus’ coming, but we heard the news and “went” and “saw” and it changed our lives. Now it’s up to us to reflect that glory to the world. In a time where “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” are the way in which the world wants us to think about Advent and Christ’s birth, it is up to us to “go” and “see”. And we should “see” long and hard enough that it once again fills us with joy and peace and wonder that we just can’t keep to ourselves!
Elizabeth: Attentive Delight
|At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” 46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”      (Luke1:39-46)|
Elizabeth was the barren and aged wife of the priest Zechariah. She was six months pregnant as the result of a promise given to her husband by an angel. Mary was a young peasant girl engaged to Joseph the carpenter. She was a relative of Elizabeth and the angel told her that she was supernaturally pregnant with the long-awaited Messiah.
Mary is famous for her faithful response which is especially illustrated by her song of praise which we call the “Magnificat”. Most of the time we assume that Mary’s response: “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” was immediately followed by the Magnificat. But it isn’t.
Something else happens first…
Put yourself in Mary’s shoes: She’s pregnant, the only explanation she has is a vision of an angel. Joseph, her fiance, will probably reject her – he could even have her stoned. Society will ostracise her. She must have been pretty terrified and she must have felt quite alone. Her parents don’t seem to be in the picture and so she heads off to see her relative, Elizabeth…
There were good reasons NOT to go to Elizabeth:
- She was a much older woman and her husband had an honourable job
- She was legitimately pregnant whereas, by human terms, Mary wasn’t
- She was the wife of a priest and should disapprove of Mary’s state
But Elizabeth must have been a special person because Mary goes to her and stays for three months.
When Mary arrives, just the sound of her voice causes baby-John-inside-Elizabeth to dance and this causes Elizabeth to recognise what God is doing in Mary.
It is this affirmation and this delight that causes Mary to magnificate!
What can we learn from Elizabeth?
- Are we “safe spaces” for others? Do they feel that they can come to us when they’re in trouble?
- Are we hospitable people, ready to open our lives to others?
- When we see God at work are we ready to exclaim and affirm?
Elizabeth’s “empathetic enthusiasm” moved Mary from fear, uncertainty and doubt to Magnificat.
May we do the same.
Joseph: Unsung Courage
|After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”      (Matthew2:19-23)
The last response to Christmas that I would like to explore is that of Joseph – the step-father of Jesus.
The Scriptures don’t tell us much about Joseph and it seems that by the time Jesus began His public ministry, Joseph had already died.
Let’s look at what we are told about Joseph:
- Matthew describes him as a righteous man, who, when he heard that Mary was pregnant, decided to divorce her quietly rather than create a public scandal that could have led to her being stoned.
- God speaks to him in a dream and he then takes care of Mary and stands by her in the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
- He and Mary fulfill all the purification rituals in the temple, offering the sacrifices of the poorest of the poor.
- God warns Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod was planning to kill all the infants in Bethlehem and he undertakes this hazarodous journey.
- God’s angel tells Joseph it is safe to return to Israel.
- Joseph obeys his instincts about Archelaus the son of Herod and, in so doing, fulfils the prophecy of Jesus being a Nazarene.
There are four lessons Joseph teaches us:
- Joseph is an unsung hero. In a culture that was strongly patriarchal, Joseph was the last to hear real truth about Mary’s pregnancy. He puts his “manly pride” firmly in his back pocket and his resolve to divorce her quietly speaks of righteousness, maturity and his true love for Mary. He plays a back-seat role and does so solidly and reliably.
- All of Joseph’s promptings came in the form of angelic dreams. It takes a lot of courage to act on a dream. It would be so easy to disregard a dream as the after-effects of last night’s pizza but Joseph is courageous enough to obey.
- Joseph is a thoughtful and reflective man. This is revealed in his resolve to divorce Mary quietly and his consideration of the danger represented by Archelaus. This thoughtfulness is used by God.
- Jesus was known as a carpenter. This means that He learned this significant craft and trade from His step-father Joseph. It speaks volumes of Joseph’s character that he had both the humility and confidence to raise and train the One he knew to be the Son of God.
Maybe, on the brink of Christmas Eve, Joseph is the character we must hold close to our hearts. Like Joseph we must know that it is not about us. We should be open and sensitive to the prompting of the Spirit. We should use our God-given common sense to live simply and cautiously – avoiding danger and temptation – trusting that God can use our decisions. Let’s remember that being parents, grand-parents, guides, teachers and mentors can be one of the greatest legacies we can ever leave.
That brings EmmDevs to a close this year. I will resume when the Gauteng schools start. May you be blessed as you celebrate Christ-mass this year. I leave you with a Frederick Beuchner quote that still grabs my attention:
The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized labouring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.” (Frederick Beuchner)
May your celebration of Christmas be warm and blessed. Take Joseph, Elizabeth, the Magi, the Shepherds and Mary as your guides.
God be with you!