The Gospel today, like the date, brings Christmas very near. As our attention turns to Mary and the birth, we are back in step with the world. Life out there is reaching its own peak of anticipation for Christmas; and those haggard and glassy-eyed faces of the determined shoppers are easier to find every day. (Sometimes we need look no farther than a mirror.) The big day is almost here.
But the Gospel also speaks to more going on out there than just the nearness of Christmas Day. The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a story of hope and of joy -- of ancient longings for redemption and security finally fulfilled; of a future that can be faced with confidence and with excitement. Those two impossibly pregnant women-the barren wife of an aging priest, and an unknown virgin with neither royal blood nor an important family-began a song of praise that has continued through twenty centuries: "My soul magnifies the Lord," Mary sings, "and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Wonderful words-there is no Christmas music blaring through the hallways of the Mall that can even get close.
And both the world out there and our own souls desperately need this pure word of joy and of hope. For in the midst of all the Christmas spirit around us, we know there is also a lot of pain. We all know how Advent can be an especially difficult time, and an especially empty time, and an excruciatingly painful time, for so very many people -- people out there, and people in here. That grim fact gets clearer every day.
But that shouldn't be surprising. Listen: secular holidays -- cultural joy -- will always fall short. They always have to be tinseled, or painted with gaudy colors, in order to look solid and impressive. That is because when the world looks to itself alone for fulfillment, when the world tries to find within itself alone cause for celebration and for joy, it can't. The world can find only emptiness-an emptiness it frantically tries to fill by tossing stuff, things of one sort or another, into itself.
So the culture does not commercialize holidays because the culture intentionally seeks second best. Instead, the culture commercializes holidays because that is simply the best the culture can do.
The same thing is true with each of us. If we look only or primarily to ourselves, only or primarily to who we are, or to what we can do, or to what we can get, if we look only or primarily there for fulfillment, for hope and for joy, then we are doomed to mouths full of ashes. There really isn't any ultimate, deep, and lasting good news in the world all by itself, or in ourselves alone.
It is to all of this that the joy and hope of Mary and Elizabeth speak most loudly. For their joy is aimed directly at the world's pain-at our pain. Both women rejoice, both sing -- yet neither celebrates anything of her own doing. Neither sings because of what she has accomplished, or because of what she deserves, or because of what the world is doing for her, or because it is the time of year people are suppose to sing.
Mary and Elizabeth sing because they have been given a new life to share. Each sings because that which nature and the world have named as barren is suddenly filled with life -- life that will, in its own time, shake the foundations of a world that has absolutely no idea what is going on.
These two women rejoice, and we are called to rejoice with them, for one reason and one reason only: because God loves us enough to act. Their joy, and ours, is deeply rooted and real. Their song, and ours, is sung only because God loves us enough to come to us-to the most barren, the most unnoticed, the very least of us-and to plant in us, and in our world, God's own life, God's own hope, and God's own promises of peace. Our hope is in the name of the Lord.
And that never seems to happen where or how or when we expect it to. Look at the other lessons: the prophet Micah told an Israel in deep trouble to look to a small and insignificant town if it wanted hope -- because nothing too important was coming out of Jerusalem, or Babylon, or any big city or important place. The writer of Hebrews insists that the sacrifice that mattered was not any of the beautiful rituals on the High Altar or in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; instead, the sacrifice that mattered was a grubby little execution on a garbage dump outside of town.
And for all the beautiful paintings and glorious music that have been inspired by that scene of Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth, one thing is certain-at the time, nobody noticed, nobody cared. As a rule, it is not the loud noises that carry the Word of God.
Still, what God wants to do to you, to each of you, this Christmas, is exactly what he did for Mary and Elizabeth. God wants to put into your hearts, and into your lives, hope and joy. Real hope -- the kind that isn't for sale and doesn't wear out; and real joy -- the joy that begins deep inside. And God wants each of us, like Mary, to bear within us, and to carry to those around us, no one other than the Lord of life. That's what God wants.
For that gift to be given to Mary, and to Elizabeth, they didn't have to go shopping. Instead they had to be still and quiet. They had to listen to voices that no one else could hear; voices that said impossible things. Each had to believe that God would do what God promised, even to her -- even to the person she was. And each had to trust that, somehow, the Lord would be faithful.
It requires a special vision, and a special discipline, to see signs of hope, to discover cause for joy. In our world and in our lives, it takes eyes that trust and hearts that believe to find real reasons to sing, to magnify the Lord, to give thanks. But it can and must be done, if we are to discover what this season is really all about.
Perhaps what Mary and Elizabeth have to say to our Christmas season is that the hope and joy which the world outside is trying to concoct, or to pretend, or to buy, this month, really is a gift-a gift usually given quietly in the places we least expect it, in the ways we do not believe possible.
For the real business of these last days before Christmas is waiting, and listening, and trusting that the Lord will regard the low estate of his servants, and that he will give to us what the world can neither give nor recognize. And perhaps, as happened to Mary and Elizabeth, some new life will begin to grow within us, new life that can begin once more to transform us; and, through us, to renew our world.