The Christmas Story
Last year Christmas was on a Monday, which meant that the day before was a hybrid of the Fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas Eve.
I’m sure that this only concerned the clergy. I doubt most parishioners thought about it. Perhaps, they considered skipping church on the Sunday morning and preferred to go to the Crib Eucharist or Midnight Mass instead.
For clergy, though, the occurrence of Christmas Eve on a Sunday has significant practical implications. When do you have the Carol Service or the Nativity Play or Christmas Pageant – surely not on Christmas Eve? Also, there is the wider issue of trying to keep Advent and Christmas separate, so that Advent has a different tone and is truly a period of preparation for Christmas.
There can be very entertaining aspects to this. I remember in my parish in London having the Nativity Play on the last but one Sunday before Christmas. We had a rehearsal the day before and were blessed by a professional actress rehearsing the cast. She was a perfectionist and the church warden who was helping her despaired of the rehearsal ever ending. Remarkably, though, there was a sudden heavy snow storm – very unusual for London – and everyone had to be sent home before the roads became impassable – it seemed like a gift from above.
The stories which Nativity plays draw upon from the gospels of Luke and Matthew are so familiar. On Sunday we’ll hear the part which links the life of John the Baptist to that of Jesus. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Then Elizabeth bears witness to the significance of the child that Mary bears in her womb: ‘Blessed are you among women…’.
Even before birth, John the Baptist is placed in relationship to Jesus, to whom he will bear witness in adult life. And the stories of Jesus and John continue to be connected, with the story alternating between the birth story of John and that of Jesus.
The familiarity of these stories may lead us to miss the significance of details or add details which aren’t there. So, for instance, we may forget that in the Mediterranean world in which Mary lived, women were kept separate and protected from men. The intrusion of a (presumably) male angel into the inner part of Mary’s house would have struck St. Luke’s audience as suspicious. The shock of the Annunciation has been portrayed by artists: Rosetti depicts a modest Mary backing away from the angel; in Lotto’s, a startled cat hisses and scampers away.
Mary was betrothed – which meant that she was at the half way point between the marriage contract being signed and the wedding itself (which might have been expected to take place a year or so after betrothal). No sexual relations were meant to occur until the wedding.
If anything happened in the family home, her menfolk would be shamed – proper care had not been taken of her. Mary is aware of this and concerned about her honour. When told by the angel that she will conceive, she asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She is aware that a pregnancy could throw the two families into turmoil. The angel reassures her: “Nothing is impossible with God.” God will play the role of a husband by protecting her (“overshadow you”) and “empowering” her (“the spirit will come upon you”).
Mary then takes an extraordinary step of faith. She accepts God’s will, at great risk to her reputation, even her life. From this moment, her womb and her body become the dwelling place – the Temple – in which the Son of God will dwell. God has chosen an ordinary young girl, in an out of the way village, to be the mother of ‘he who saves’, Jesus. Only the power of God can produce salvation from the body of an insignificant and ordinary young girl who lived in an obscure village.