A few days ago, I ran across this quotation from Cole Arthur Riley, a black liturgist who works to incorporate into prayer some biblical themes that we often ignore -- dignity, lament, a sense of belonging, the struggle for justice, the need for rest, and the ultimate goal, liberation. She wrote, “I take so much delight in the silence of the men in the Advent story. Zechariah can’t speak. Joseph doesn’t speak. While the words and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth take their rightful place. The sound of Advent is the voice of women.”
Like any good writer, she sent me back to the Bible, to remind myself of what, precisely, Elizabeth and Mary had said in their Advent stories. The first chapter of Luke quotes them both. Elizabeth was married to the high priest Zechariah. Both led righteous lives, but they were getting older and had no children. One day, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah in the temple and told him that Elizabeth would bear a child, who would be named John and would bring others back to God. When Zechariah wondered aloud how that could be -- given their ages -- he was struck mute “until the day these things occur.” So, as Riley wrote, “Zechariah can’t speak.”
While his wife, Elizabeth was in seclusion, she said of her pregnancy (v. 25), “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Hold that thought.
When the same angel visits Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, to announce her child, she responds by thinking first (v. 29) and then speaking (v. 34): “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Then she listens before she speaks again (v. 38): “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
Soon Mary visits her kinswoman, Elizabeth, and the child in her womb leaps when he hears Mary’s voice (vv. 41-45). Then Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary respondes, speaking at length (vv. 47-55): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
A few months later, when Elizabeth’s child is born, people assumed he would be named after his father, Zechariah. His mother spoke one last time (v. 60), “No; he is to be called John.” When her hearers objected that that name didn’t run in her family, Zechariah responds -- in writing because he still can’t speak (v. 63) -- “His name is John.” Immediately. Zechariah’s mouth was opened.
Imagine an Advent when we heard not the whole Christmas story, as it was recorded most probably by men, not the countless words explaining what Christmas means, written and spoken by men in the centuries since, but only the words of Elizabeth and Mary. We would hear Elizabeth express her own sense of awe and humility. We’d hear her acknowledge the disgrace she endured in her barrenness. We would hear her rush to bless her kinswoman, not once, but twice and, between those two blessings, we'd here her own wonder about her role in the story.
And in Mary’s speech, one of the longest uttered by a woman in the Bible, we would hear her praise for God and her recognition of her own humility. We would hear her acknowledge what God has done for her. And we would hear her elaborate on what God will do for others:
Show mercy to the fearful.
Scatter the proud.
Bring down the powerful.
Lift up the powerless.
Fill the hungry.
Send the rich away empty.
If ever there was a theological to-do list, this might be it -- straightforward, humbly to the point. Riley is right. “The sound of Advent is the voice of women.” Are we listening?
Last week my three-year-old granddaughter spent a day with me -- we are in the same pandemic bubble. We had a great day together, the highlight of which was her playing with an old wooden nativity set that I’ve had for at least 40 years. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a carved wooden crib, three wisemen and a handful of sheep/donkeys. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, these little sheep have lost their shepherds. At any rate, my granddaughter played with them throughout the day, introducing them to some Native Americans, Lego people, and one small, bedraggled, artificial Christmas tree.
The next day, as I gathered up the toys, I sorted the play figures -- putting away the plastic versions and scooping up the wooden nativity figures, setting them on a wooden tray that I keep on my coffee table. I went about the rest of my day, but the next morning, as I sat on my sofa, gazing at my seven-foot Christmas tree, also artificial, I noticed the nativity folk on the wooden tray. The tree stood in their midst. The men were gathered up together, as though they’d formed a football huddle. I smiled at what they might be saying to each other. “Great visit with the baby, Joseph, but where can we get a drink and a hot meal?” Mary sat by herself, removed, her back to the men, staring off into the distance at my blank television set. Scripture says (in Luke 2:19) that while the shepherds were nattering on about the baby Jesus, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Maybe my rearranged nativity set reflected Mary in a pondering moment. Meanwhile, as she’s got her back to the action and Joseph and the Wise Men are conferring, the baby Jesus lay across the tray, behind the tattered Christmas tree, in his manger, all alone.
Now, I have been known to read too much into little things, but my unintentionally alternative nativity scene has been much on my mind in recent days. Like Mary, I catch myself staring off into the distance, lost in my own thoughts, wondering about how to sensibly celebrate Christmas in the midst of a global pandemic. At other times, I am caught up in animated conversations about the latest political fallout of this nightmare presidential transition. “Have you heard the latest?” Occasionally, I feel alone like the little wooden Jesus, wondering, perhaps, like him, about what my life means in this hostile world. And all too often, I think about how the adults in this nativity scene seem to be ignoring -- and I cringe to use this phrase -- “the reason for the season.”
It’s been almost a week and I haven’t rearranged this unusual nativity scene yet. I think it is teaching me something, and I want to reflect on it a little longer. Here’s what I’ve come up with. That after more than sixty years of contemplating the Christmas story, I often get it wrong. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with thinking about Mary, or Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men or even Jesus. But sometimes I forget the big picture. And I think it is the big picture that promises hope. I think the point of the nativity story is to remind us that the birth of Jesus involved more than three people. A group of individuals, each with different perspectives, different lives, and different values, were present. Surely, the birth of Jesus did not affect all the witnesses in the same way. So removed from their circumstances, we can’t be sure whether or how the rest of their lives were changed.
The same is true today. As I sit in judgment of others who don’t “get” the Christmas story, I am reminded that there is a lot about an individual's or a groups’ mindsets, motives, and actions that I just don’t know. I pretend I can read their minds, but the truth is, I can’t. Maybe one miracle of Christmas is recognizing that hope may well reside in the inner lives of anyone who witnesses the birth of Jesus. How that hope expresses itself may not be readily, if ever, apparent to the rest of us. But for me, this difficult year, believing that hope exists when I can't see it may be the point of the nativity story.
Advent is underway, the season when Christians prepare themselves -- not their homes, their gift lists, or their holiday menus, but themselves --- for Christmas. Keeping one’s priorities straight is difficult enough in ordinary times, especially in the face of overwhelming cultural cues on gift-giving, shipping deadlines and budget-friendly feasts. But focusing on the state of my soul, my words, my actions, and my inaction during this time of pandemic and a problematic presidential transition, as the nation seems to splinter around me, is almost impossible. Recently I have been thinking about Watch Night, an old Christian custom that has been reclaimed several times over the past 500 years. Watch Night might be the best way to end 2020 and prepare for 2021.
In the fifteenth century, Christians in the Eastern European settlements of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) were inspired by the words of Jan Hus, a Bohemian theologian and professor who criticized the Catholic Church sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his protests to a church door. Hus faulted the institutional church for selling papal indulgences and participating in unholy alliances with secular leaders. He was excommunicated in 1411, but popular support for his ideas grew. The church officially declared him a heretic in 1415, and he was burned at the stake by secular authorities. His ideas endured, however. In 1457, Moravian Christians, in something of a prophetic move (the official Protestant Reformation began in 1517), broke away from the Catholic Church and established a denomination that still exists today. The core of their faith is that accepting a particular doctrine or creed does not make one a Christian. More important is living one’s life according to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. And the point of their faith is to serve the poorest and most despised among us. The Morovian tradition included Watch Nights, or covenant renewal services. Often held on New Year’s Eve, Watch Nights were prayerful gatherings where the faithful assessed their lives over the past year and rededicated themselves to following Jesus’ example in the next one.
John Wesley, a more modern Christian reformer and a founder of the Methodist movement, encountered the Moravian Church in the 18th century. His journal from 1736-38 records their calm, cheerful, and selfless service of others living in poverty and suffering injustice. Wesley was so impressed with the Moravian covenant renewal service that he adopted the Watch Night principles and encouraged covenant renewal services within his tradition. Many Methodist Churches still hold them on New Year’s Eve.
Then on December 31, 1863, African Americans gathered in churches for a vigil the night before Abraham Lincoln was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. As midnight approached, the faithful knelt in silence to pray. Known also as “Freedom’s Eve,” this rendering of Watch Night still is marked today because persistent racism still exacts a deadly toll on people of color.
This thumb-nail history of Watch Night reminds me of the need to rededicate myself to my faith, especially in these trying times. And, believing that saying or writing one’s intentions “out loud” is often a way to make sure they are carried out, I am telling you that this New Year’s Eve will find me alone at my kitchen table. I will light a candle and think about my failings: the anger I feel in the wake of the presidential election; the sorrow and resentment I wrestle with in this pandemic; my own racist thoughts, words and deeds; the privilege that I struggle with; my fears for the future that keep me from being more generous; and my unrelenting critique of the church that has, too often, subverted my faith in Jesus Christ. I have also decided to re-read the Gospel of Mark all at once. Mark was the earliest gospel written -- the shortest one -- and was, scholars think, intended to be heard or read in a single sitting. I will pray for strength to begin again in the New Year. And I will ask God’s blessings on Moravians, Methodists, on all Black men, women and their families, and on all human beings, created, as we are, in the image of God.
May we all have a better year in 2021.