The greatest Christmas carol in history was not written by Irving Berlin or Nat King Cole. The greatest carol is not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “White Christmas” or even “Silent Night.” The greatest carol was composed 2,000 years ago by a pregnant teenage girl who was visiting her cousin Elizabeth.
My wife and I recently went to see William Inge's play Picnic,
which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. It was a riveting performance. I
was moved by how deeply the characters struggle to figure out who they
are in their corner of the world, a small town in Kansas.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth. The synoptic Gospels all say so, and the kerygma in Acts connects the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with that baptism. But although Mark seems to find it quite right that Jesus should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, all the other evangelists seem discomfited by the suggestion that Jesus was somehow a disciple of this other preacher.
The glad song Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel functions like a lighted magnifying glass. It illumines, making possible the discernment of something that was there all the time, but difficult to see without aid. Mary sings of the whole new order of things that God is creating all around us, one in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich, who have unwisely filled up on so much that does not satisfy, are emptied so that they can have their real hungers met at last.
It is hard to believe what we hear, that we are a blessed people, standing in God’s favor. Hard to believe that God will bring righteousness to our world, as mysteriously and yet naturally as a seed sprouts and grows out of the earth. We know it is foolish to put stock in such promises, when we have devastated God’s creation with war and willful misuse.