Nine Lessons and Carols: 20 December 2018
Fr Justin Dodd
If you’re anything like me, you might feel that there is a lot of pressure to be happy during the festive season. ‘Tis the season to be jolly’ can really grind on your nerves when you’re feeling anything but that. And ‘Tis the season to be jolly annoyed’ wouldn’t make the most appealing Christmas card.
Luckily, I know there are others feeling just as cynical and weary about the Christmas crush as I am at times. But you have to be very observant to find these compatriots. They are, for obvious reasons, almost always in hiding. Even as I look out at this congregation tonight, I detect the rising tide of desperation for some of you. Your mouth may be singing “O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant” but your eyes, oh yes your eyes, are saying something quite the opposite. Our minds you see, have been turned to pulp by gift lists still unfulfilled, simmering family feuds that may erupt over the dinner table, quaint seasonal recipes (the ingredients of which can only be found at Waitrose) and Brexit.
A peasant teenage girl is going about her business. She doesn’t have many resources. Life would be precarious, hard work and frequently uncomfortable. She has entered into an agreement to marry a local carpenter. The match would probably not have been of her own making. She lives in a small town called Nazareth. Not much happens in this place so word about her betrothal would have fed small talk as people leaned against the wall at the well or stopped for a bite to eat in the fields. Something to pass the time.
What was Mary doing that day? Sweeping the floor, cleaning pots or trying to cobble together a meal when the angel Gabriel drops in with big news. Other than being somewhat startled, I’m sure she may well have felt that secret irritation or anxiety we do in the long line at the post office when the clerk takes a tea break. “What now? I’ve already got so much to do. What does this all mean?”
The Angel’s greeting is quite telling. The first words out of his mouth are “Hail favoured one”. Some translations have it as “Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you.” This doesn’t seem strange to us because we are so familiar with this story and we are not first century Jews. In fact, traditionally a greeting of this importance would be the Hebrew salutation “shalom” – peace be with you. But
in the gospels it is the Greek word chaire (gh-ai-ro) that is used by Gabriel and even though it may be translated as “hail” or “greetings”, its true meaning is “rejoice”.
Could this really be so? This angel brings word that Mary is to conceive, effectively outside of wedlock and that this child is the son of God. Imagine how this will set the town gossiping. An impoverished and vulnerable teenage girl is about to have her life turned upside down and this angel begins with “rejoice”
Why do we build Christmas up to be something almost impossible, year in and year out? In part I blame the Victorians. Who doesn’t? And yet in all of the stress and effort, I do think there is wisdom to be found. The celebration of Christmas certainly gives us something, it must do, but it also demands something of us. It is not just a festival of lights and joy (although of course there’s nothing wrong with that). Something much deeper is being acknowledged in our family gatherings and parties and exchanges of gifts, the opening up of a deeper reality.
Rejoice is the greeting of redemption. Rejoice in Greek, a language understood by many peoples of the world at that time. Redemption is not just for the chosen nation of God or the powerful or the religious but for all the people of the world. And if our gospels are anything to go by this Word of life, of renewal is heralded into the most inconvenient and troubled parts of our lives. The word of God is made flesh in the womb of an uneducated peasant girl engaged with the daily chores. In the ordinary, frustrating, painful and anxious places redemption is being spoken.
When we gather at the crib or share a corny cracker joke or sweat over the roasting of the turkey we are also acknowledging (maybe not entirely consciously) that love has been spoken definitively into what it means to human, two thousand years ago with the birth of Jesus Christ and today.
If “Rejoice, the lord is with you” are the first of the words out of the mouth of Angel Gabriel to Mary, let us not forget that the next are “Do not be afraid.” The word of love has been spoken in Jesus Christ, is being spoken in Jesus Christ and will be spoken in Jesus Christ. That deeper reality that Mary seems to catch sight of in that extraordinary moment, is to be encountered in the places we least expect. God is with us - Emmanuel. Rejoice. It seems to me to offer much more and demand more much than “let us be jolly.”