Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence
Last month, noted biblical scholar J. Ellsworth Kalas died at age 92. He was a prolific author, and I’ve used many of his resources in my years of ministry. He wrote a whole series of short studies on the scripture that were called “From the Backside” – the Parables from the Backside, the Old Testament from the Backside, Beatitudes from the Backside. Each book took a very relatable, straight-forward approach to drawing out themes from the scriptures, but by looking at the scriptures in a new light, from a different angle, focusing on minor characters or small details. My favorite is Christmas from the Backside, and I have had a particular chapter on my mind as I’ve reflected on Mary and Elizabeth this week. Kalas includes in his book chapters like “The Scandal of Christmas” and “Three Votes for an Early Christmas,” and he also includes a chapter called “Christmas Comes to a Back Fence” that focuses on the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth and the significance of women to the birth story of Jesus. He imagines the sharing between Mary and Elizabeth of the extraordinary happenings both are experiencing, juxtaposed against the common, ordinary setting of Elizabeth’s home.
We can envision this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary in a place where women might comfortably talk together. In the time when Mary and Elizabeth met to share and talk over their life-changing news, there weren’t many public places where women might gather for conversation. This conversation, then, is one that might take place in the kitchen, in the yard, by the fence, certainly a conversation that took place at home. And it is here, likely at Elizabeth’s home, in this ordinary place, talking about ordinary and extraordinary things, that we read of Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit, the first time in the gospels this happens. We usually think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, falling on the disciples as they began the work of the church. But it fills Elizabeth first, as she rejoices in what is happening in both Mary and herself, saying, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” They both believe, Mary and Elizabeth, ordinary though they may be, that God is doing something extraordinary in and through them.
There are, of course, many miraculous things about the birth of Jesus and the connected stories as told in the scriptures. There are God’s messengers, the angels, popping in and out of the lives of everyone from Mary, mother of Jesus to shepherds in fields, and a sky fully of heavenly host. There’s Jesus, born in a stable, a star that guides the way, and eventually Wisemen from the East who perhaps practice astrology and bring strange gifts to the baby. There’s Elizabeth, pregnant beyond the known age of child-bearing. There is, of course, the very fact that Gabriel tells Mary her child will be the Son of the Most High God, conceived through this overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus is extraordinary.
But there are far more things about the birth of Jesus that are entirely typical. Mary experiences the limitations that unexpected pregnancies place on young women. Elizabeth feels her baby moving around in her womb. Mary wants to share her news with her cousin, and be with someone else who is experiencing what she is. Above all, we know nothing about Mary or Elizabeth that leads us to believe that they are in any way different from any other women of their time and place. We don’t find anything to suggest that they were especially pious or holy or spiritual or devoted or faithful. Perhaps they were, but the biblical writers don’t bother to share that if that’s the case. And this child, Jesus, who will be born, will not be of noble birth, will not be born in a palace, will not be born into luxury or status. He is not going to be born a prince or a king – not by standards his world will recognize. Despite God’s host of messengers, despite the shepherds that will come, despite the star, despite the visitors from the East, I think the normalcy of Jesus’ birth is just as, maybe more important than the attention-getting uniqueness of it. After all, this is God-with-us, and God can only be with us if God is really with us – born like us, born among us, born to experiences that most of us, not just a few of the elite of us have, born to a regular young woman, like any number of other children would have been born on the very same day. The birth of Jesus is ordinary.
We so often look at the world around us and divide what we see into two realms – sacred and secular. There are holy things and holy people and holy place – cross and altars and clergy and churches and sanctuaries – and then there’s ordinary stuff – our homes, our workplaces, our stuff, our food, and all the regular people. But that’s not what we see in the Christmas story. That’s not what we see in Mary and Elizabeth. That’s not what we see in scriptures. Instead, we find again and again that God shows up unexpectedly in our ordinary place, and by God’s very presence, by God’s showing up in our regular old lives, they are made holy. That’s what God does in communion – ordinary bread and cup become extraordinarily the living body of Christ. In baptism regular old water becomes a sign of new life, rebirth. Fishermen and tax collectors become disciples. Children become keys to understanding God’s reign on earth. And two ordinary women become the mother of the Christ-child and the mother of the prophet who will prepare his way. That’s what happens when God shows up in our ordinary – what God touches becomes Holy.
I think sometimes we spend so much effort seeking out what we think is holy and sacred so that we can draw close to God. Instead, I wonder if we can start looking for the ways that the holy is all around us when God shows up in the ordinary stuff of our lives. Perhaps you’ll notice a holy moment when you are in the midst of the chaos at a busy shopping mall in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Perhaps you can make note of the holy in our midst when you see the kind of gifts children prepare for their loved ones with such care and creativity. Maybe you’ll experience a holy moment as you roll out the dough for Christmas cookies, or when you hear a carol on the radio as you drive to work. When you see examples of God-with-us in the everyday of life, you’re seeing something holy.
Kalas writes, “I’m trying to say that Christmas shows us that no part of life is unimportant to God, and that none of it is beyond God’s interest. And if that be so, not one of us is beyond God’s care and concern … So if you’re wondering where Christmas will happen this year, I’ll answer with a question: Where do you expect to be?” Because Christmas happens where we are. Christmas comes right to our homes, and right to our hearts. God loves you, God loves me, God loves us enough to become one of us, to show up in every part of our world, in every aspect of our lives. The gift that we can prepare for God this Christmas is to offer to God every bit, every piece, every part of our ordinary lives. And then, get ready: Because everything God gets to work on can becomes something extraordinary, something holy. And blessed are we who believed that there will be a fulfilment of what is spoken to us by God! Amen.