Carlos Wilton, 4th Sunday of Advent, Year C; Luke 1:39-45
“And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’”
– Luke 1:41-42
“Hark, the Fleet Street tabloids sing: Glory to the newborn king — or queen)!”
They’ll be singing that song (or something like it) “across the pond” in the British Isles this summer, as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge — better known as Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William — has her baby. The British press is guaranteed to go absolutely bonkers, and the rest of the world press not far behind. Even here in the USA — where we supposedly cast off all monarchist sympathies a couple centuries ago — there’s keen interest in this baby soon to be born, this royal heir.
Just think about what it’s going to be like for that child, growing up. Male or female, it no longer makes any difference for the royal succession. So, assuming Prince William does make it to the throne someday, this little boy or girl is going to be born into a life of unimaginable privilege. Someday, he or she will become the sole owner of one of the world’s great fortunes — and will also grow up to become the living symbol of not only an entire nation, but of all the nations of the British Commonwealth.
It doesn’t much matter how smart this child will grow up to be, nor virtuous, nor motivated, nor even compassionate. He or she will be the embodiment of the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” By sheer accident of birth, this child will one day inherit the job of constitutional monarch, with “all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto.”
Now, just for fun, let’s compare the pregnancy of Kate, wife of William, Duke of Cambridge, with that of Mary, wife of Joseph of Nazareth (who wasn’t the duke of anything).
Kate has a loving husband who, by all accounts, dotes on her.
Mary has a loving husband, too — but it hasn’t always been that way. Unlike William, Joseph is not the biological father of the child his wife is carrying: and when he first found out about the pregnancy, he almost divorced her.
Kate, according to the press, has had a terrible time with morning sickness, but she received the world’s very best medical care.
We have no idea if Mary had morning sickness, but if she did, she was probably on her own.
Every detail of Kate’s pregnancy — from what she eats, to how much weight she puts on, to the sort of maternity fashions she chooses to wear — will be the subject of intense scrutiny by billions of people.
Mary’s pregnancy is of little interest to anyone, other than Joseph and perhaps a few other members of their family (like her cousin Elizabeth, whom we read about today).
When Kate needs to go somewhere, it could be by horsedrawn carriage or helicopter, or anything in between.
When Mary needs to go somewhere — even that long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem — she walks (or, if she’s lucky, she bounces along on a donkey).
Kate’s baby will go home from the hospital to any one of a number of castles and palaces belonging to her in-laws.
Mary’s baby will be homeless at first — especially since his parents will soon have to flee to a foreign country, to escape the wrath of King Herod.
It would seem, therefore, that the similarities between these two pregnancies, Kate’s and Mary’s, are almost non-existent, with just one exception — and it’s a pretty big one. Both are royal pregnancies.
In the case of Kate, the trappings of royalty are obvious.
In the case of Mary — except for those strange visitors from the east who turn up one day, then vanish just as quickly — there’s nothing that would set her pregnancy apart from that of any other young peasant woman of the day.
On some day in the distant future, the son or daughter of Kate will ride to Westminster Abbey in a gilded carriage, clad in a robe of ermine, to be handed the orb and scepter and have a jewel-encrusted golden crown set upon the head.
One day, Mary’s son will be led to the Governor’s Palace in chains. There he will be given the opportunity to claim his kingdom. Pontius Pilate, Imperial Governor, will ask him point-blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
To which Jesus will reply: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
As, indeed, it’s not — although, ironically, most of the celebrations of his birth are nothing if not worldly. Other than the hour you may spend in church on Christmas Eve, it’s a pretty fair bet that all the activities labeled “Christmas” you’re going to pursue, in the next few days, have to do with very earthly things: food, alcohol and the flashy expenditure of more money on trivial items than will happen any other time of year.
We hear a lot, these days, about the so-called “War on Christmas.” Most often, people who sling that phrase around are complaining about an increasingly secularized culture, in which it may be more common to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” than “Merry Christmas!”
I, for one, find it hard to take such complaints seriously. The reason is, we Christians have been doing such a good job ourselves of waging war on Christmas, for such a very long time, that the odd “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” hardly puts a dent in the consumer feeding frenzy.
I find it extremely ironic that those who are most concerned about the “War on Christmas” tend to fixate on things that go on in stores. When a department store chain instructs its cashiers to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” just after swiping their customers’ credit cards, the War-on-Christmas people scream bloody murder. “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” they bluster — as though a commercial transaction by which customers exchange cash for trendy gift items has the least thing to do with Jesus!
Really, do you think the man who sent his disciples out with instructions not to carry any money, but to beg for their sustenance, telling them to depend on the hospitality of strangers, would recognize a single thing about the modern celebration of his birth? Not likely! Sure, Christmas is a time when people try a little harder to be nice to one another, to share a little kindness along with the eggnog — but, since when was Christianity all about being nice? If there is a Beatitude somewhere that says, “Blessed are the nice,” I’ve yet to see it.
None of this stuff is wrong. Our family’s got Christmas lights hanging on the Manse porch, and — I must confess — we buy Christmas presents for our pets (as I know a lot of you do, too). Very small ones.
A Christmas tree sits right here in the Sanctuary with presents under it (the presents happen to be a charitable give-away, but still, it echoes the consumer culture). Those attending our Christmas Day dinner in the Annex will likely enjoy a little visit from Santa Claus. It’s all good fun.
If there were anything intrinsically wrong about Christians engaging in those practices, we wouldn’t do them. But — and here’s the subtle point, one that’s easily missed — sometimes there’s a big difference between something being “not wrong” and it being “right.” Much of the secular Christmas — the very thing the War-on-Christmas people seem determined to protect — belongs more to the sort of kingdom the next Windsor baby will one day inherit than it does the kingdom of God.
The true War on Christmas, as I see it, has nothing to do with store clerks saying “Happy Holidays.” It doesn’t have anything to do with stores at all. Anytime any one of us thinks more about luxuries for ourself than necessities for the poor, it’s a War on Christmas. Anytime we become consumed by envy because a neighbor has a bigger house or car than we do, it’s a War on Christmas. Anytime we let anger fester in our family relationships, without seeking reconciliation and healing, it’s a War on Christmas. Anytime we allow lust to rule our hearts, it’s a War on Christmas. Anytime we turn a blind eye to racism or injustice, saying to ourselves “That’s just the way the world is,” it’s a War on Christmas.
I could go on and on, but I think you get my point: the true War on Christmas is anything that undermines Christ’s teachings about how we’re to live lives of faithful discipleship, not the imposition of a sectarian religious test upon some store clerk.
Mary’s royal pregnancy has nothing to do with the sort of things symbolized by any other royal pregnancy: wealth and power and prestige. It has to do with the propagation of love in the world: the costly, sacrificial sort of love that puts the needs of neighbors first and those of ourselves second.
We, as a congregation, are going to have an opportunity to engage in that sort of risky, selfless love in the months and years to come. As most of you surely know by now, we’re making plans to convert a portion of our Education Annex into a hostel for visiting volunteer work groups, that are going to be coming to this area help our neighbors rebuild their homes after Hurricane Sandy. Anybody who works in a church, or in a charitable organization doing relief work, has been getting the phone calls, ever since the floodwaters subsided. The person on the other end of the line says, “We’ve got a group of church members who are all ready to come to the Jersey Shore and help with the rebuilding. We don’t want to take motel rooms or rental housing away from displaced people who need it, but we do want to lend a hand. Do you have a simple place we could unroll our sleeping bags, so we can join in the relief efforts?”
You simply have no conception how many of those calls I’ve received, as a pastor (same with my colleagues in other local churches). And for every call we’ve received, there are ten that have come in to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance national call center, asking, “When are you going to get some Volunteer Villages set up at the Jersey Shore? We know there are needs, and we’d like to come help.”
PDA — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — can’t do what they typically do after hurricanes on the Gulf Coast or in Florida, which is set up tent cities. We’re a four-season area. It’s too cold in the winter. They desperately need indoor space, close to the areas where people’s homes have been flooded.
We have just such a place in our Education Annex. We think we have room for up to 36 people, in bunk beds. Thirty-six people, doing 8 hours of work a day, for 5 days, is 1,440 hours. Do you think our congregation could come up with enough volunteers to do that kind of work, week in and week out, for several years into the future? There’s no way! We’d burn out in a month, if not sooner. But what we can do is allow part of our building to become a Volunteer Village, through PDA, so fresh teams of workers can cycle through on a weekly basis. We in Point Pleasant are not the only Presbyterians, you know. There’s a whole denomination out there, that knows how to do this volunteer work group thing very, very well — and has done it, in other hurricane-stricken communities around the country.
The one obstacle in our way is showers. We’ve come to realize that the option we thought would work, of borrowing the high school’s locker rooms late in the evening, just isn’t going to fit the work team schedules. Fortunately, we’ve had a charitable foundation, the Robin Hood Fund, promise us $25,000, which ought to be enough to install four or more showers in the Education Annex.
Now, we don’t just happen to have empty space in that building just sitting there, awaiting such a noble purpose. We’re too active a church for that. Nor do we own either the real estate or the additional money to slap up an addition to the building. The only way we’re going to find that sort of space is to pull back on some of our use of certain rooms. We’ve had the luxury, for a very long time, of reserving certain spaces for one purpose only, one day a week. We’ve grown comfortable with that, over the years. We think it’s the only way to do church.
I’ve got news for you. It’s not! One of the strong and vibrant churches of our Presbytery is the Morning Star Church in Bayville, a new congregation. They’ve constructed a wonderful new building, after many years of fundraising and hard work, but for years they didn’t have that space. Ask my friend, Myrlene Hamilton Hess, the pastor, about the days when she used to carry the church around in the trunk of her car, as she used to say. By that, she meant the worship materials and musical instruments they unpacked each week and set up in the rented space where they worshiped.
The kingdom of this world says, if you’re going to be a church, you’ve got to be an institution, and institutions have buildings, and buildings have rooms that have names, and once you’ve named a room, it can only be used for that purpose. According to the logic of the kingdom of God, it’s not about that at all, it’s about mission, and how the Spirit is motivating God’s people to fulfill that mission, which sometimes requires us to think outside the box — and what is a room, after all, but a big box?
As Mary felt that new life stir within her, she knew it was something that wasn’t about her, but was rather all about what God had decided to do through her. Every once in a while, God does something new among us, like that. If God can perform the great miracle of using a Galilean peasant girl to bring the Savior into the world, then surely God can perform the small miracle of causing an ordinary congregation to make what sacrifices are necessary to open its doors to welcome others in to help rebuild our community. It’s all about the divine potential, and whether we have the vision to see it.
My hope and prayer is that we truly can.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.