A Prayer for Christmas in July
 

Holy One,
 
The ground is covered in green grass these days instead of white snow. We are cutting flowers to bring in instead of evergreens. People are baring skin instead of bundling up. And yet, we gather today to celebrate Christmas.
 
I’m reminded of the words to the song “We Need a Little Christmas.” We usually don’t hear the song until December, but it’s meant to remind us that sometimes we need Christmas even when Christmas is a long way off. “For I've grown a little leaner,” the song says, “grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older. And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder. I need a little Christmas now.”
 
Perhaps we need a little Christmas now. Now, in the languid heat of summer. Now, as we notice new lines on our faces or a new pain in a joint. Now, as we prepare for a new school year, with entirely new sets of concerns and new procedures. Now, with our new sorrows and fresh griefs.
 
Let it be Christmas in our hearts, we pray. Let us rejoice in new birth and in the promise of new life that you offer us every day. Let us find ourselves joyfully humming an unexpected carol. Remind us that you loved us so much that you willingly entered into flesh, with all its joys and sorrows. Help us to see you here among us still now.

Amen. 


 


 

Expecting
Luke 1:39-45 (NRSV)

 
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
 
 
One of my favorite things about starting a new year is getting a new planner. I love all the possibilities that those empty calendar boxes represent. I love carefully filling it up with church plans and birthdays of loved ones and travel dates. And normally, looking at my planner is one of the first things that I do when I’m starting my day. So, it was weird when the pandemic first hit in March, and things began to shut down, and I found myself going weeks without even looking at it.
 
In part, I didn’t look because suddenly there just weren’t as many things to keep track of. I wasn’t going to yoga in the morning or meeting members of the church for coffee or making visitations or catching up with colleagues in my clergy group. And in part I didn’t look because my calendar was still filled with all the things I had expected to do: the concerts I had tickets to, the trips I was planning, the church events I’d been looking forward to. I didn’t want to be reminded. I wasn’t only sad that these things were no longer happening, but I missed the anticipation of them. I missed having plans to look forward to. I missed 
expecting things.
 
Perhaps that’s why when I was trying to settle on a scripture for this week, for our Christmas in July service, I found myself drawn to this story of expectation. Mary and Elizabeth are both, as we say, expecting. But neither of them could possibly have expected to find themselves where they are. We know the stories of their pregnancies so well that it can be easy to forget the astonishment they must both have felt.
 
Elizabeth has spent a lifetime trying to have a child and failing. Aging past her childbearing years may even have provided some sense of relief. She can finally stop trying, stop worrying, stop hoping. She finally knows what to expect, even if what she knows to expect is heart-wrenching. And then one day, on a day like any other, her husband Zechariah is at the temple in Jerusalem, ministering at the altar, when an angel appears before him to tell him that Elizabeth is finally going to have a child. It will be a boy, he is told, and they are to name him John. The angel goes on to tell him that this child will become a man who will also defy people’s expectations. John will be a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit, called to prepare the way of the Lord.
 
Six months later, Mary is going about her daily tasks in the small town of Galilee when an angel appears before her as well. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel tells her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary, to her credit, doesn’t balk or argue. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she replies. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
 
The verses we read this morning come right after the angel’s shocking announcement. The angel of the annunciation is long gone, the shepherds are still far off, and Mary is left excepting. Her first instinct is to go “with haste” to see her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. Luke doesn’t tell us why, and Elizabeth herself seems to wonder, but we can make some guesses. Perhaps Mary simply wants to know whether the angel’s astonishing news is true. If an angel had appeared to any of us with news that would shake the very foundations of our lives and alter the world as we know it, we might want some kind of proof too. Maybe she goes to Elizabeth for some kind of verification. If Elizabeth 
is14pt pregnant, as the angel has said, then the rest of the angel’s message might just be true too.
 
Or perhaps she goes because when we receive news that will shake the very foundations of our lives and alter the world as we know it, we want the people we can depend on around us. Mary is a young peasant woman, engaged but not yet married, who has just been told that she is already pregnant and is going to give birth to a son who will establish God’s promised kingdom. Who among us wouldn’t want the comfort of a familiar face in light of all that? Perhaps Mary simply wants someone to reassure her and make her feel safe.
 
Whether she is looking for confirmation or comfort, she finds some of both. Elizabeth doesn’t even need Mary to tell her the story of why she came. She sees clearly what is going on as soon as Mary walks in the door. And although we’re told that John will the prophet, Elizabeth takes on that role herself in this moment, and she offers Mary an unexpected greeting.
 
In our English translation, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed twice, but she actually uses two different words. In this first instance, when she pronounces Mary “blessed … among women” and proclaims that her child is also blessed, she uses the word 
eulogemene. It’s where our word eulogy comes from, and it means to speak well of or praise. But when Elizabeth tells Mary she is blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” she uses the word makaria. It’s the same word Jesus will use later to describe the state of the poor, the meek, and the hungry in the text we call the Beatitudes. Its meaning is something closer to happy or content.
 
Mary will be praised. Even today, we don’t tend to greet unwed pregnant teenagers with words like “blessed are you amongst women,” but Elizabeth overturns social expectations, seeing past the expected judgment and dishonor in order to glimpse the blessing unfolding in their lives. She opens her arms and her home to her young cousin, welcoming her, celebrating her, honoring her, and blessing her.  Mary’s reputation is far from ruined. Instead, she and her child will be praised throughout the generations.
 
And Mary will be happy. In the book 
God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan suggests that evidence indicates Jesus was likely born around 4 BCE. Around this time, in the wake of Herod the Great’s death, Jews have rebelled against their Roman oppressors. The city of Sepphoris in Galilee, about four miles from where Jesus would have grown up in Nazareth, was the site of one of these rebellions. Syrian legions under the direction of Rome squashed the Jewish uprising and burned the city. Crossan notes that those who could not flee or hide “were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived have lost everything.” This is the world into which Elizabeth and Mary are going to deliver their promised sons. It doesn’t seem like a world with much room for divine joy. But Mary’s happiness rests in the belief that God is able to do what God promises to do, even when it seems impossible.
 
Nothing about the circumstances seem to call for blessings, and yet they are offered. In their unexpected situations, Mary and Elizabeth catch a glimpse of God’s long-expected promise unfolding. It’s this promise that converts shame to honor, fear to joy, despair to hope.
 
Perhaps there is little in our world right now that seems to call for blessings either. Certainly, little this year has been what any of us would have expected. Our plans have changed. Our futures may seem uncertain. But if the story of scripture is to be believed, and I think it is, then uncertainty and peril are always exactly where God seems to show up—in the times that seem so dangerous and precarious, in places where it feels like the world is on fire. God does not wait until we have everything in order. God does not wait until there is an opening on our calendar or for us to get the house tidied up or for the world to be ready. God simply arrives.
 
Some of us probably wish that an angel would appear in the kitchen while we are sweeping the floor and tell us what’s coming. But really, aren’t we called to already be awaiting God’s coming? Do we need to be told? We aren’t in Advent, but as people of faith, we are always in a time of waiting and expectation. Madeleine L’Engle described the waiting of Advent as even more trembling and terrible than the waiting between Good Friday and Easter. In part because we are awaiting something that hasn’t yet come to pass. In an essay called 
Time and Space Turned Upside Down, L’Engle writes about this waiting, not for Jesus’s birth, but for the arrival of Christ in our world, what we call The Second Coming.  

“What is it, the coming of Christ in glory?” L’Engle asks. “What’s it going to be like? We don’t know. We don’t know anything about this event that is new, that has never happened before.
 
“But, being human and therefore curious, we want to know. We want to know so badly that sometimes we think we do know, and that can sometimes lead to danger and even evil. Whenever we want to know something before its true time, we get into trouble. We’ve never learned how to wait. We’re impatient creatures. Our impatience, our unwillingness to wait, is all through our stories…. The only thing I know about the Second Coming is that it is going to happen because of God’s love. God made the universe out of love; the Word shouted all things joyfully into being because of love. The Second Coming, whenever it happens, and whatever it means, will also be because of love.”
 
There are many different opinions about what The Second Coming will look like, but I wonder whether Christ’s first arrival gives us a clue: Christ shows up where least expected: to the wrong people in the wrong sort of place in the wrong time. Christ comes in love. If we are unsure what to expect the rest of the year—in our schools or jobs or even our country right now, we can at least expect Christ’s coming, even if we don’t understand it.

Perhaps it’s better that we don’t pretend to understand it. Perhaps we’re more likely to recognize it when we can set our expectations aside and remember that the events we can’t schedule on our calendars are often the ones that shape us the most. So let us go forward, expecting only that God will fulfill what God has already spoken to us. Expecting the unexpected. When we do, we too may be blessed. We too may find ourselves happy despite any circumstances.