It’s hard to believe that Christmas is upon us once again.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Christmas, not because of the presents and all of the good food and all of the feeling, the general feeling of closeness (people seem to be closer to each other during this festive time).
And these are all wonderful things, but I have the feeling that each year what it says to me is: I am acceptable.
Because today a child is born to us.
And the child is just a helpless, little child. A child who will dream dreams. A child who will be loved. A child who will be cared for. A child who will grow up and face the world in all its wonder, in all its sadness and in all its sorrow. A child that will feel love and feel rejection. A child who is the Son of God.
And I think that’s what Christmas is. The gift of the Father. The gift of his Father is love. And we take this love into our hearts and into our lives. And we know that this is what is important: to care for him, to give him a place, to make him able to function, even, through our own lives. And this is what Christmas means.
And how he should choose such weak, such hopeless, such ordinary people to be the light of the world, the saviors of the world, the ones who will do his Father’s will.
The one who seems to fit this picture best of all is Mary in today’s Gospel — Mary, this teenage, unmarried mother, about ready to give birth to a child.
We are now eight months earlier and she’s in Nazareth. And she’s just a simple Jewish maiden from a small town named Nazareth in an unimportant country named Palestine.
And here the angel appears to her and says to her, “Blessed are you among women, for God has chosen you to bring forth the Messiah, the long awaited Christos, God Himself.”
And you would think that Mary would be overjoyed, because all the young women of Israel must have wondered and pondered and dreamed that some day they too would be the one chosen to bring the great promise made to Abraham, the great promise that a messiah would come.
And yet all the good in all the towns and all the wondrous ladies were disappointed, because a simple, illiterate maiden, perhaps seventeen years old, from the smallest of villages, is the one God sends Gabriel, to tell her, to ask her, if she would be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God.
And what does she say?
She shrinks back, she’s frightened. Who is she? She herself knows what she is: nothing more, nothing less, than a simple maiden in a small town. And then she wonders. She’s not even married.
And if she says yes, her whole life will be radically changed. And if she says yes, there will be no room for herself at all in a life that is lived in order that her child might be known, might be cared for, and might be loved.
And finally she says to the angel, “How is this possible? I do not know a man.”
And the angel looks at her and says, “Do not be afraid, for the Holy Spirit will overshadow you and the birth of this child will come and he will be known as the Son of God.” Then the angel says to her, “Mary, do not be afraid.”
You all know those words. Jesus used them after the Resurrection. Every time he saw his disciples, every time he saw people backing away and confused and lost and feeling he was gone forever, the first words he would say, “Do not be afraid.”
And why is that?
Because, the truth be told, this world is run by fear. We are all walking very closely to the edge of fear, and most of the decisions we make are not made in the light of God and in the happiness of life, they’re made out of fear and of the tension that it brings.
And so the angel says quickly to her:“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Favor is another word for grace. Favor and grace means a special love.
And that special love is given to you freely. And you have nothing to fear, for if you put your faith in God’s love, everything, whatever happens, will come out for you, and you will be able to carry on the burden that He will now lay upon you.
This is a wonderful preparation for Christmas because Mary now says, in those very famous words, not “I am happy to do this. It’s wonderful that you picked me,” she says, “Be it done according to Thy word.”
At this moment, Mary takes on flesh. And the child that is born of her has the flesh of Mary, the eyes of Mary, the ears of Mary, the loveliness of Mary, the humanity of Mary.
And many years later, when she holds him after they take him down from the cross, his last words, will be echoes of those that she herself said, “Be it done to me according to Your word,” when he gives his life into the hands of his Father.
Mary then is something very special for all of us because Mary is the model that we are called to follow.
We think we should model ourselves after Jesus. No one can model themselves after the Son of God. But here is our nature’s solitary boast. Mary is the model because she’s totally and completely human.
And why is it passed on to us?
Think of it now. How is this child to be known? How is this child to be infleshed in the world in which we live, unless it is through us?
It is Mary’s faith that makes the incarnation possible. And it is our faith that makes the incarnation possible in our own world.
It is we, and our faith, it is this that brings the Child to the world. It brings new meaning to our families, to grow with us, to be with us. And it is through the goodness of our own faith, one with him, that the love of God is to be radiated out into the whole world.
If it all comes to a matter of faith, we should be as frightened as Mary.
Because God calls to each and every one of us. He says, “The Child is yours. I put him under your protection, under your guidance, under your love, and it is you who will reveal him to each other.”
Faith is very important. What is faith, now?
You say, well, faith is what you put your faith in, that’s what faith is.
There’s a story that I like to tell about faith.
In upstate New York, there’s Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. It’s very famous. Everybody that was getting married used to go up to Niagara Falls to get married, because it was such a wondrous thing.
And the Falls were dangerous and high.
A lot of men, trying to show how they were, would put themselves into barrels, and tar the barrels with pitch, and then they’d throw themselves over the Falls. Many of them died, but some survived.
Then another group decided they would show how brave they were. They would throw a cable across the mouth of the Falls (quite a long distance) and they would tie the cable at each end. And then they would walk across it like tightrope walkers, with a bar.
And that faded a little bit, so one gentleman decided that he was going to outdo this, and he would take a wheelbarrow. And he’d put a man in the wheelbarrow and he’d wheel him on this little wire all the way across the pounding waters of Niagara Falls.
And everybody would be gathered at the other end, just waiting breathlessly to see if he could do it. Because there were no nets.
Anyhow, he would start and keep pushing. And he’d get a little bit of the way and then he’d get a little nervous, and then he’d pull himself together again and push a bit further. And this would go on.
And the little man in the front is afraid to look over the Falls. And everyone is beginning to cheer, “You can do it, you can do it.”
And he finally gets him over, across the Falls, and he dumps him on the ground, and everybody cheers and says that’s wonderful.
And the little man shakes his hand and he says, “You know, at first, I had my doubts, but now I’m going to put my whole faith in you every time.”
And so the tightrope walker looks at him and he says, “You have faith in me?”
“Yes, I have faith in you.”
So he says, “Well jump in and I’ll take you back.”
The difference between the faith of Mary and our faith is we’re all willing to go so far, and then, of course, our faith begins to fade.
But Mary is there for the whole journey, all the way over, and all the way back.
And this is the kind of faith that we’re supposed to run our lives with. This is the kind of faith that God says, “Mary, blessed are you among women, because God has chosen you to be the one to reveal the Messiah to the whole world.”
And, of course, this is what is asked of us.
And Mary knew that most of all when she took her dead child into her arms and she did what Jesus did, offered him to his Father.
And from that moment on, it has been a part of Christian tradition always to stay close to Mary, for she will teach us how to receive him, to live with him, to be with him.
Christmas is not something that happened to other people many, many centuries ago.
It happens every day when we bring our faith together and say to God, “Take my life. Be it done to me according to Your word.”