12.21.2014 Preaching Text: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:47)
Several Christmases ago I shared with you a true, heartwarming story that took place in a large shopping mall in the Philadelphia area during this, the craziest of shopping seasons. As you’ll recall, a local opera company decided to spread its members out within the crowded mall. You can still see it on YouTube.
In the midst of the grim, seemingly mindless business of buying and selling, betraying a kind of “we’re going to celebrate Christmas if it kills us” attitude, suddenly a lone voice begins singing the famous Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s Messiah.
At first, the shoppers are a bit stunned, uncertain how to respond. They stop in their tracks, shopping bags in hand, trying to figure out what’s happening. Then, just as suddenly, yet another voice joins the first. In time, the whole opera company is singing Händel’s glorious music, set to the equally glorious words of scripture, words that, in combination with the music, seem to capture the highest aspirations of the human spirit.
At the very beginning of the video, the viewer can’t help but pick up on the ordinary, almost hum-drum feel of the hundreds of shoppers. Within a mere few seconds, a gradual transformation overtakes the crowd. In the midst of a singular preoccupation, one by one, their faces soften as they realize what’s going on.
Moved by the music and the sentiment behind it, the whole crowd joins in the chorus. Faces light up. Suddenly the whole mall unites as a singular voice rising up from joy and exultation.
This little experiment (or gift) betrays something basic to human life. In the midst of the ordinariness of things, a momentary invitation to take part in something beautiful, something larger than oneself, overwhelms the otherwise distracted shoppers. Out of seemingly nothing, the crowd suddenly becomes one, singing together, smiling together, experiencing the sheer delight of simply being connected to one another.
I’m always struck by the way we human beings open our hearts (and minds) at Christmastime in ways we typically don’t throughout the rest of the year. Our thoughts turn to giving. Generosity is felt by even those who rarely think about such things. Even in the midst of all the buying and selling, genuine thoughts and expressions of human kindness are rendered commonplace.
Last Sunday, both the choir and bell choir visited two elderly communities in our neighborhood, The Royal and Rosewood. The bell choir played several Christmas pieces, followed by a couple from the voice choir, and concluding with a carol sing-along. Needless to say, it was heartwarming.
At one point, at the Royal, while we were all singing together, a woman in the front row shouted out joyfully, “I wish Christmas lasted all year round!”
Isn’t it a bit tragic, I often think, that we only allow ourselves to experience this kind of joy and interpersonal connectedness during just a few weeks out of the year?
Why not always? Why is it that we seem to require permission to temporarily suspend our cheerless, hard-nosed “realism” for a moment of joy-filled camaraderie and good will? Why don’t we do this all the time?
This Wednesday evening our sanctuary likely will be filled with any number of people for whom church is a once or twice a year event. What is it that brings them here?
Year after year I marvel at the way the ancient stories touch the heart, stories of angels and archangels, of mysteries hidden and revealed suddenly, of the mystical, of the transcendent breaking into time, disorienting and recasting it in terms of godliness, wholesomeness, heartfelt goodness, tenderness, beauty. How these old, impossible stories are able to break down the hardened walls formed, brick by brick, by the scientific, materialistic, hard-boiled skepticism of our modern age.
What Mary experiences in the “Magnificat” or “Song of Mary” is this very same sudden existential infusion of the impossibility of God into her heart.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings forth, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Out of this experience her life is forever recast and reordered. Her heart sings, soaring out and beyond earthly limitations and worldly sorrow. In but a moment she realizes that she is a beloved child of God; that God is with her. From now on, nothing else will matter.
It is this same spiritual recasting of life that Christmas beckons us to experience and live by. At its core Christmas is about receiving and accepting the precious gift of God’s impossible love, a transformative love that breaks down the ironclad defenses born of our secular, materialistic world and recasts life in the light of God’s grace.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that life’s greatest challenge just may be the challenge of receiving love, accepting its boundless invitation to tender mercy and peace.
Imagine what life would be like if we were willing to receive unreservedly this gift and take it to heart, as does Mary.
What if we were to live each day with same transformed spirit as those in that shopping mall, or as the woman at The Royal? What if each day were lived as the embodiment of a Christmas Eve?
Christmas is the existential fact of God’s impossible love. And it is far more real than that which we falsely assume otherwise to be the truth. Amen.