Christmas is a festival of great joy! “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for to all the people” announced the angel to the shepherds! In fact, the Lucan birth narratives (Luke 1-2) take us on a pilgrimage of discovery and research to enable us to understand the great joy contained in the birth of Jesus. They invite us to find deeper meaning in/of life, and call us to learn life lessons, in and through our struggles, pain and suffering and celebrate life. Christmas indeed calls us to dare to discern and make sense.
Mary a village girl of Nazareth learnt through an angel of the Lord that she is the most favoured one, (Luke:2:28). But then the encounter became a disruptive event in her life as she also learnt from him that though she is a virgin she will bear a son (Luke 1:31). “How will this be?” (Luke 1:34) Mary exclaimed and questioned. The very meaning of ‘favour’ and ‘blessing’ is reinterpreted in the Lucan narrative. It tells us the story of an utterly disruptive occurrence becoming a most creative event! In the process, incomprehensible becomes comprehensible and that which is beyond imagination becomes imaginable. It is only possible for those who could DARE, through a process of Discernment and Radical Engagement!
Mary’s “how will this be?” is answered by the angel in a simple, but profound way in the narrative. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit is the key to discernment. The Holy Spirit is the enabling and engaging power; the encouraging and empowering companion and accompanier. He will make people to understand and to make sense. But it was indeed not easy for Mary to remember, let alone to comprehend what the angel meant by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit!
I imagine that life after the angelic encounter for Mary was rather difficult. I am sure that there were no takers, or at best a few might have believed in angel story in Nazareth! Mary had to hurriedly relocate herself from Nazareth to a town in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). Did she run to a safe place? If you corelate the Matthean story where even Joseph wanted a quiet dissolution of their marriage engagement. (Matt 1:19). Suspicion, abuse, disgrace, disruption, questioning, displacement adorned Mary’s life. There was certainly no Joy! let alone Great Joy!
Six months with Elisabeth gave her enough time, opportunity and space to get the confidence of Elisabeth and Joseph. In the company of Elisabeth, she began to understand the meaning of being the most favoured one! God’s favour brings struggle, pain and suffering, and joy amidst hardship. The Magnificat, Mary’s song that emanated through her sorrow, reverberates even today as a song of revolution. In her time of crisis, Mary began to understand the radical engagement of God in bringing reformation and renewal in the community. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53). Do we not hear the contemporary yearnings for liberation from the valleys of despair in the song of Mary? Do they not inspire our commitment to redemption; songs that bring about disturbance in the hubs of power? How will this be? The challenging contexts liberate the best in us and allow the confidence to sprout and enable rising to new heights even in the midst of crisis.
Though Joseph’s accompaniment and standing by gave Mary courage, their walk together from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea was certainly long, but surely not to freedom. In Bethlehem, the considered home town of Joseph, they were not welcome, they find no place to stay. When the people do not provide space, animals do share their space! In a manger Mary could find that small place welcoming and warm enough. Finding place where there is none is Joy! In seeing, recognising, and utilising the space, the small and insignificant becomes significant. No space becomes Rehoboth, the wide space. In sharing space, we create space, an open space, a liminal space. In a manger not only could Mary and Joseph find space in the company of animals; they could also welcome the child into that space, and a little later even the shepherds could visit them there. The Child in the manger enables knitting new relationships, new networks, and makes the discernment and engagement possible. How will this be? A shared space with the earth community makes discernment possible and that is the good news of Great joy!
The song of the angelic choir awakened the shepherds. The angelic choir makes shepherds attempt to sing; gives them confidence to sing loudly, the strength to stand and to overcome hesitation, frustrations and fear. Conquering fear is joy! They became eager to test that was announced to them. Shepherds hurried off (Luke 2:16), wasted no time, eagerly became proactive researchers. When they arrived at the manger and narrated their experience of liberation from darkness, fear, anxiety and perplexity, (Luke 2:17-18) Mary and Joseph began comprehending the meaning of displacement and of finding a new space. Shepherds represent wisdom of and from the margins that help us with new interpretations and give perspective. Margins provide us with new eyes. How will this be? Margins are empowered and endowed with the angelic message of great joy. The transformation is possible only when the margins begin to move in eagerness and share their discernment! Listening to the stories of disruptive displacements becoming events of creative justice is discernment and empowerment to radical engagement and joy. That is the sign of the “Christ event” that multiplies, extends continuously, as the shepherds returned singing and sharing their Christ experience, in a celebration of great joy.
For Luke, transformation does not come from the centre. As such Jerusalem does not play a role in the Lucan birth narratives; only when the child of Bethlehem (Luke 2: 22) and Nazareth (Luke 2: 42) visit the temple, Jerusalem sits up in awe and wonder! Discernment dawns on Jerusalem, and it is amazed at his understanding! Mary and Joseph too are astonished! (Luke 2:30-32, 47-48). When the baby Jesus was consecrated to the Lord in the temple, Simeon a righteous and devout man moved by the spirit praised God for having given him the grace to see the salvation. (Luke 2: 29f). Prophetess Anna too joined Simeon in praising God for the redemption God has prepared. “The Child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) How will this be? Like the words of Simeon and Anna, prophesy is the voice of inner conviction, interpreting the signs of the time and making future known. The prophetic actions of our day help us to discern and enable us to radical engagement.
How will this be? Mary at the end of her encounter with the angel, put herself in God’s hand and surrendered herself to God even though she could not understand or discern an iota of what the angel spoke. “I am the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38); complete surrender to God enables discernment and radical engagement. Mary could recognise the Spirit-imbued discernment through the assuring companionship of Elisabeth, the committed accompaniment of Joseph, through the wisdom that emanated from the suffering companions from the margin, the shepherds. And then, Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); that Mary not only surrendered in complete obedience to God, but was also involved in a Spirit-imbued deep reflection. When we surrender ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit will enable, encourage, and empower us to engage in deep, reflective discernment where we discover the depth of our being!
How will this be? Mary’s reflective pondering was ultimately answered on the cross. When she witnessed the self-giving, self-emptying, radical engagement of Jesus, she found new meaning to her own complete surrender and self-giving!
May this Christmas DARE us to surrender ourselves in complete obedience to God, to begin a process of discernment and radical engagement, and in complete knowledge of our utter vulnerability, be enabled, encouraged and empowered to engage in deep reflection, to discover Christ with us and with everyone and in everything around us. May this Christmas make us wise through the wisdom of the margins to engage in prophetic diaconia of justice, singing the good news of great joy!
Wish you all a blessed Christmas
Rev. Dr. D. Rathnakara Sadananda
General Secretary, CSI