We live in a world of email, text messaging, tweets, instagrams, and all manner of connectivity in social and electronic media. It has become all very ordinary. Yet, each day, I am more than a little curious about what comes “old school” via USPS into my mailbox. There is correspondence from the Diocese, advertisements for one thing or another guaranteed to improve and renew the parish, bills and invoices, catalogs, and “ta-da!”… Christmas cards.
Christmas cards bring wishes for the holidays, notes about the year past, pictures of families, and the card itself. I save the family pictures and often the front of the card. I have a framed picture of the Virgin Mary in my office that is actually a Christmas card cover. Like many of the cards, they are from art of the Medieval or Renaissance period, filled with rich and vibrant colors. Some show Mary as a queen holding a plump child, smiling as he holds up his chubby hand in blessing. Even if Mary is not posed as royalty, there is a certain upper-middle class look of privilege about the image. I love all the cards, the thoughtfulness of the family who sent it, and the artwork. But as I sat quietly thinking about a homily for this gospel, it strikes me there is something askew.
It was not among royalty or the halls of power that the angel came announcing that a Messiah was to be born. The angel came to a small village, a poor house in Roman-occupied Palestine, way out on the edge of the empire – in backwater, no-count town. The angel came to a young woman who knew the life of daily chores, whose hands were anything but soft, and whose hands were calloused. A few years ago I got a card with the cover by a Japanese artist showing the angel coming to Mary as she sits next to her spinning wheel and loom making cloth. I love that imagery – the Word of the Lord coming to Mary in the ordinary of life. The Word coming to a person who is asked to accept the most radical of proposals for a new life, a new way of being, to move from the ordinary to the most extraordinary.
Can you imagine? Mary is maybe 15 years old and this angel has announced the most amazing news and she is filled with joy, vision, and purpose…. And then she paused, realizing all the implications of her “yes.” “Yes, let me be the handmaid of the Lord, but show me the way to go when family and friends realize I am with child and not with husband. Who is going to understand all that has happened and see the Lord God working through me… and not think I am crazy.” The most extraordinary of moments, the Annunciation, but just a pause before the ordinary resumes.
And so she sets out in haste into the hill country, a perilous journey with its own obstacles and dangers. She sets out to see the one person who could understand, Elizabeth, her cousin, the one thought unable to have children. Elizabeth is now 6 month pregnant as she carries the one who we know as John the Baptist. The one who intimately knows the working of God, Hope, and extraordinary things in the midst of an ordinary life. I can almost imagine Mary going just to be reassured, to know that all this is real.
I don’t think I have ever gotten a Christmas card with Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It is there in the ordinary meeting of cousins the Word of God moves out among the people. This is the first proclamation of the Gospel! What should that Christmas card look like? A Google image search mostly shows similar Medieval or Renaissance images of royalty meeting royalty – all very nice, but all very contained and posed. But there was one image I loved. It was two ordinary peasant women of Palestine. The two are standing together. Elizabeth’s hands are extended out placed upon Mary’s womb – in blessing, in prayer, in Hope. Mary head and eyes are cast down upon her cousin’s hands, her own hands covering them. “Yes, this is real!” Elizabeth’s head is tilted back, eyes cast heavenward, and there is a shout of joy, of blessing, and praising God that fills the canvas. It is spontaneous and uncontained. It is the Word of God proclaimed in the most ordinary of meetings.
Ordinary people, in the ordinary act of celebrating the “Oh my gosh, you’re having a baby” moment. Celebrating what is anything but ordinary.
Advent is anything but ordinary. It is the extraordinary hidden within the womb of the ordinary. It is the unrestrained moment of joy with the meeting of cousins. It is the Word of God coming into the world to unfold our salvation in the most ordinary of ways – a child coming into the world.
Christmas is anything but ordinary. But then, your life is anything but ordinary.
We are not royalty, not famous, not on the cover of Time Magazine – probably not on the cover of a noted Christmas card. We are as the Prophet Micah tells Bethlehem – too small to even be counted among the tribes of Judah. But from ordinary, little ol’ Bethlehem came the Messiah – came the Word of God. From you can come the Word of God proclaimed into the world.
What extraordinary thing you this year because of the promises of Christ? Maybe no one in the world will know but you. Maybe the only person who will know is the one you reached out to. Maybe the whole world will hear about your extraordinary acts. Whatever the scope and scale, it is one act of ordinary that opens up a whole new world. Let the extraordinary Word of God pour forth from your so-called ordinary life. Hurry in haste into your life.