This week, many congregations took time to decorate their churches for the coming Christmas celebration. These symbols of Christmas bring us joy and delight as the Church waits in hopefulness, and prepares to receive the good news yet again. Through the birth of the Christ child, God fulfilled his promise of the long awaited Messiah. Evergreens, poinsettias, wreaths in the windows and even a tree filled with Christian symbols help us to proclaim this good news. Their symbolism reminds us of God’s long ago promise, and opens our eyes and our hearts to God’s perfect and unconditional love. When connected to God’s Word in Holy Scripture, these symbols, in their own way, share the good news of Christ Jesus with us. Yet, these decorations are not holy things; they are not the object of our focus. However pleasing it may be, the beauty of our churches during Advent and at Christmas, the music of beloved songs and the joy that tradition brings, are not the good news. For Christian joy and celebration is not rooted in decoration, rather, it is rooted in the gospel. The word gospel literally means, “good news.”
In the first chapter of Luke, the evangelist tells us of a young girl receiving good news from the angel Gabriel. The good news of Christ is first brought to Mary, and upon receiving it, her heart’s desire becomes doing as the Lord commands. Later in Luke’s gospel, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also expecting a child and shares this good news with her. The sharing of good news leads to even greater joy and celebration. As Mary sings her “Magnificat,” this humble young woman from Nazareth sings praises to God as the promise for salvation begins to unfold. Mary’s song speaks of how God’s grace and mercy will bring joy and celebration to even the most lowly on earth.
Mary sings, “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.” Luke 1: 50-53
Mary sings as if God has already done these things, because in her heart, she knows God will keep his promise. So she celebrates this good and wonderful news. So too the Church celebrates with joy and thanksgiving. But is doesn’t stop there. As the good news is to be shared and celebrated, it is also to be lived out in the mission of the Church.
The good news of Christ comes with blessing and the promise that wrong will be made right and oppression will give way to compassion. The outcast will be made welcome, and the hungry will be fed. The joy of Mary and her beautiful Magnificat is a joy meant for all people; the joy of a young unwed mother to be, whose heart’s desire is to do as God wills.
Mary’s journey began in earnest when she embraced the promise of God as brought to her by Gabriel, the promise that says “…nothing is impossible with God.” In joyous refrain Mary answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke 1: 37-38.
Throughout our Advent journey, let our hearts also be drawn to the day God came with blessing unto Mary and shared with her the good news of Christ Jesus. An angel brought the good news to Mary, who in turn shared it with the Church for all time. Today this good news comes to us once again; the good news of a young woman suddenly expecting a child, who is Christ the Lord. As Mary heard the good news from Gabriele, her heart was drawn to God’s message of hope, and she gave of herself according to God’s call.
I pray that during this season of Advent, as our churches are beautifully decorated and we take delight in the long standing traditions of our congregations, we do not lose our focus on what God wills us to do. May our hearts be drawn to give something of ourselves according to God’s call. May we continue to serve our neighbors and welcome the strangers among us. Good news is news to be celebrated with great joy. Yet it is also to be lived out through the lives of God’s faithful people. As we welcome others into our churches, I pray that the beauty of these decorations is pleasing in their sight, and that their symbolism of God’s love and grace for all people is proclaimed, so that all may experience the joy and celebration at Christmas.