Conception of Hope (Christmas Eve)

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For most of us, the Christmas story is fairly familiar. Other nuances and obscure narratives in the Bible may be unknown to us, but this story has infiltrated society in a way like no other.

We already know that Angel Gabriel has made a stunning appearance to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. We already know that God makes good on this promise and elderly Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant. We already know that Angel Gabriel also makes an even more astonishing proclamation to a young woman named Mary: she will bear the Savior of the Universe and name him Jesus. We already know that the Angel will appear to Joseph in a dream to ease his fears about wedding Mary. And, we also already know that angels will announce the marvelous news to shepherds and that, eventually, the mysterious magi will set out on their long trek to meet Jesus.

We already know this story. What more is there to say, except to maybe point out that Gabriel deserves some overtime pay for his work about 2000 years ago.

Despite its predictability due to mass inundation, this story is very strange, completely unlikely, and utterly miraculous. Certainly, much of the wonder and mystery lies in the truth that God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered into our violent and broken world.  

But, what strikes me as so surprising this year is the openness of humanity to God’s invitation and action. How were Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi able to embrace and receive what came to them? No matter how unbelievable, how strange, how disruptive the new reality was they were thrust into, they were able to cultivate a space for the miraculous.

Now, truth be told, they don’t always immediately welcome what is laid out before them. Gabriel’s words, “Do not be afraid,” are downright ludicrous. Of course, they are afraid and nervous; of course, they have questions and doubts. The unknown makes them, and us, feel as if we are teetering on the precipice ruin. 

Yet somehow, they are able to entertain the angels who appear to them; they are able to receive the message, despite its unbelievability; and they are able to respond and step into the unknown.
Somehow, they were all able to say their world-turning “yes’s” when queried.

How did they do that?
That’s the true Christmas miracle.
Because, had the birth of Christ depended upon my willingness and trust, the world would still be waiting for its redemption.
God knew better than to ask me, I suppose.
But, they were able to conceive, grow, and birth hope.  

I don’t find a lot of clues in the gospels about what prepared each of them to say “yes,” so I can only conjecture and imagine based on their stories and actions.
How did they have the ability to hold space for what seems impossible?
This, for me, is a crucial question of Christmas.

You have probably noticed that not only have I not solely focused on infant Jesus this evening, but I’m also not just focusing on Mary, even though I think she is one heck-of-a Rockstar woman.
Getting Jesus born into this world involved MANY.
Not just God; not just Mary.

And I think this fact is our first sign in answering that crucial Christmas question: How do we create space for the impossible and space for hope to grow?

Elizabeth became sanctuary for Mary; Zechariah trusted the angel; Joseph relied on the kindness of a somewhat stingy innkeeper; shepherds banded together. These people all clung to others during their times of great upheaval and confusion. It seems that ‘others’ – whether they be angels or strangers; family or friends – act as God’s midwives who coax us during the arduous and audacious laboring of hope.

It seems Christmas – the when hope was born – also involves a healthy dose of fear and anxiety. This seems contrary to the meek and mild patina that is typically painted onto Christmas. The ironic proclamation by the angels, “Do not be afraid,” acknowledge that the message they bring will generate fear. However, I believe the angels know an important secret: fear creates fertile space for hope to take hold.

This is not to say that one should relish fear. However, it seems true figuratively, literally, and spiritually that a lot of the birthing process is intimate work that happens in the dark where fear abides. Fear disrupts our lives and elicits questioning. And is there anything more unsettling than receiving a clear word, from an angel no less, about what it is we’re meant to do in this world? Anything more challenging than being called into the work God has for you? Anything more confusing than being told what you’re up against?

However, when the angels appear, they do not show up empty-handed. They come bearing the gift of courage. Courage to ask hard questions and courage to face the answers.

So, Zechariah questions the angel, “How can I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” He asks a fair question. Side note: I love how he doesn’t throw his wife under the bus; he just politely points out to Gabriel that his wife is not quite as spry as she once was.

His question is analogous to Mary’s question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Which is also similar to the magi’s question of, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?

They all encounter hard situations which demand curious questioning, not absolute submission. Questioning has often been viewed as a mark of unbelief and skepticism, but what our nativity friends bravely show us is questioning is an incubator of hope. Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds are all granted a certain amount of ferociousness, curiosity, and steadfastness which empowers them to embrace their fears with fierce questions and a daring expectation of God.

Sometimes I can be cautious in my questioning and requests, especially in relation to God and what I hope for. I set my expectations low, because if I don’t ask, don’t hope, don’t wonder then I won’t be disappointed. However, when we are armed with truth, we can begin to make sense of the world as it actually exists.

Which allows us to dream – dream of what could be. Not ethereal dreams of no consequence, but dreams which beckon us beyond our headspace and into the womb of God deep with mystery, promise, and hope. When we partner with God, like Mary and Joseph did, like Elizabeth and Zechariah did, like the shepherds and the magi did we becomes mothers and fathers of hope.

Armed with truth Mary is able to dream that her son might truly be the Savior of the Nations.
Armed with truth Joseph is able to face ridicule and wed Mary, protecting love incarnate as He entered the world.
Armed with truth Zechariah and Elizabeth raised a son who would prepare the way for hope.
Armed with truth the shepherds became the first evangelists to witness to the gospel.

Each of the characters in the Christmas story are heralded down unknown paths; each of them must live in the tension between hope and loss; each of them face their own individual annunciations.

These are not easy roads they are on.
It is not an easy road we are on, however by clinging to one another, trusting that fear doesn’t own us, asking the hard questions, and dreaming with God about what could be our wombs are opened and we are able to hold space for the impossible. And in doing so, we just might catch a glimpse of the nearest thing to heaven: a small child who comes to save us: embodying hope, love, and sacrifice. 

And so, this Christmas, what might God be announcing to you, what angel might be visiting you, what will illuminate your darkest nights, and how will you hold space for Jesus to be born?
Because the time for the impossible is nigh: it’s time for hope to be born anew. Amen.