|Visitation (Mariotto Albertinelli, 1503)|
It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and Mary has been visiting. That was customary in those days for women who were carrying a child. Women, especially relatives, would get together and visit. These visitations provided a safe place for women to engage in woman’s talk, to open up a little about things that couldn’t be discussed in public. There were no reference books available at Barnes & Noble on the matter back then—no nurse hotlines, either—that could impart information on such matters. Instead, this wisdom was passed through the generations, prenatal care administered sister to sister, mother to daughter, aunt to niece, neighbor to neighbor. And so Mary’s been visiting, because she has conceived.
The trip from Nazareth to see her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea was a bit farther than most women would travel alone in those days, but, then again, her pregnancy was no ordinary one, and neither was Elizabeth’s, for that matter. Mary had not yet been with her fiancé, and Elizabeth had conceived way past the years of childbearing. There would be much to discuss.
As Mary crosses the threshold of the home and calls out hello, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb literally begins kicking. It is Jesus’ first recorded effect on anyone, just the beginning of a long line of leaps of faith. And Elizabeth, overcome with the Spirit, overwhelmed with the idea that she is receiving the mother of God, offers a double blessing. And in response, Mary blurts out a song of her own, a profound hymn that ties together Mary’s humble circumstances with the mighty strength of God; a hymn that describes how the fulcrum of history lies right in her belly: where the balance, once and for all, will be tipped in favor of the lowly, the hungry, the ones who serve. Just whose soul, exactly, may magnify—may be able to praise—the Lord? Surely not a young Jewish girl from some no-name town!
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It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and pastors have been visiting. It is customary in these days before the major feast days for the clergy to make rounds with the homebound and see how they are faring. Here at Epiphany, Pastor Price, Pastor Bosserman, and I divide up the list and travel to the hospital, the nursing home, the suburban residence with our handy-dandy Holy Communion kits. It is a time to engage in holy, if not small, talk, parishioner to pastor, child of God to child of God, and to open up a bit about what they’ve lately been going through and what’s been happening in the congregation. There’s the sharing of aches and pains, how the arthritis is a little worse this year, along with the perspectives gained by growing older.
At some point, the opportunity to share Holy Communion crosses the threshold of conversation, and eyes leap with the glimmer of anticipation. They bless my leather-bound, silver-plated communion kit with compliments. Some of them even remember from our previous visit that it was a gift at ordination by my grandmother’s Sunday School class. They typically recall the darker brown communion set that Pastor Chris brings, as well as the one that Pastor Tom uses, which was used by his father before him.
One homebound parishioner in the first congregation I served was always so reserved and reticent as I tried at lengths to carry on a conversation. Indeed, it was always rough going until, near the end, I pulled out that small communion set. There, on the faded plastic tablecloth that adorned her kitchen table, we’d share Holy Communion…and Gladys would really start talking. What was lowly was lifted up. She’d bless me with all kinds of wisdom and, at long last, laughter. You would think I might have learned to begin the visits to Gladys with Jesus’ body and blood, to put my foolish small talk aside let the word of Christ, present in humble bread and wine, become the fulcrum for our visit, but I never did. As with Gladys in those days, so do the pastors in many congregations go about having Christmas time visitations, unlikely occurrences of the humble and ordinary magnifying the Lord.
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It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and you, my friends, have been visiting. Oh, yes, you have: special brunches, Christmas teas in the Star Lodge, holiday open houses, bowl game parties, and progressive dinners. It is customary in these last days of the year to visit and chat, to host friends and family, to travel to brightly decorated homes for food and fun. The youth group visited a retirement facility the other night to sing some carols. Holding a lit candle in one hand and fumbling with the lyrics with the other, they might have missed the glimmer of anticipation on the faces of the elderly who were assembled. They might have missed the residents saying, as their dinner was joyfully interrupted, “And why has this happened to us, that on a Friday night the youth of the city comes to us at Gayton Terrace?”
The Men’s Lunch groups visited this week, like they do every month, but this time suspending their regular Bible conversations to open up and share responses to the tragedy in Connecticut last week. These were holy conversations, too. In the private dining room of a local Greek restaurant, Christ was borne once again in the words of men who have family members that struggle with mental illness, about the pain and silent suffering that social stigmas create, about the challenges of violence in our society. Christ was borne once again in someone’s compassionately listening ear and gentle encouragement over matters that are not usually mentioned in public. And in the men’s group discussion, the fulcrum’s balance tipped once again in favor of those who need mercy: the proud were scattered in the thoughts of their hearts the lowly were lifted up, right there around those tables with simple, plastic tablecloths.
The Mom’s Bible Study group suspended their Bible study on Thursday, too, to visit over breakfast goodies and discuss, among other things, their pride in the Children’s Christmas program here last Sunday, their amazement at a production that so remarkably comes together right at the last minute. They also expressed their wonder at 4th and 5th graders stepping to a mic to belt out a solo in front of hundreds of people, mothers sharing their astonishment that the soul of such a small child could, once again, magnify the Lord.
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It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and God has been visiting. Indeed, God is always the first one to visit, the first one to move in our direction, the first one to make the risky journey and be hosted by us. This, as it turns out, is customary of our God, this shunning of the great and powerful to visit instead with the small and insignificant. It is this God’s habit to pass by the avenues of the proud and wealthy and instead remember his covenant of mercy by appearing at the margins: first in the wandering tribe of former slaves, then to an unwed teenage mother in Judean hill country, then in Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans of Judah. Then, once there, in a manger. And, after that, in the borrowed Upper room…in the loaf and cup on a simple table with plain tablecloth…and a low-life’s cross on Calvary.
This week I saw a trailer for a feature-length documentary that will soon be released about a remarkable orchestra in a village in Paraguay that is built on a dump. The members of the orchestra are the children who live there. They were assembled by a music teacher and an orchestra director who wanted to provide an educational opportunity for the poor children. Soon they had more children than instruments. But then the children began scouring the garbage for materials they could use to make violins, violas, cellos, and the like. The orchestra is called the Landfill Harmonic, and the instruments they design from cans and wood scraps sound remarkably similar to the real thing.
It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, so let us remember how God visits: how he, too, comes to the this landfill earth and scours the surroundings for the lost and tossed aside, how he habitually selects the overlooked and underused, and lets their souls become instruments of beauty, combines their lives to become an unlikely orchestra that proclaims his greatness. Let us remember how the Son, the babe of the manger, crucified and risen, may be borne again in our words and actions to a weary world gathered around its simple plastic tablecloths, ready to leap in faith and joy.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.