Sunday, December 23, 2018
What Reason Have You to Be Merry? A Sermon on Luke 1: 46-56
[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City
December 23, 2018.]
What right have you to be merry?
What reason have you to be merry?
So asked Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 175 years ago tomorrow, and maybe, just maybe it’s about time we took that question seriously.
After all, the story was published in 1843, and we’ve pretty much just assumed that it was bad-tempered spite on the part of old Ebenezer to ask it.
And maybe that’s true. He is, after all, the villain of the story as well as its protagonist, and his salvation takes the three spirits of Christmas some pretty heavy lifting.
On the other hand, villains often are the dark mirrors of ourselves, the part of us we reject as unworthy, the parts of our true selves that we repress because we can’t bear to acknowledge them. We all want to be our best selves, kind, brave, generous but prudent. We act the parts of the people we want to be, and mostly we try to live up to that image. But that image—the “Glittering Image” as Susan Howatch called it—isn’t our real self either, because it’s only a part of the whole that comprises each and every one of us.
This darker half of ourselves, the unacknowledged fears, desires, and thoughts, can have a kind of wisdom that we shut out of our minds.
After all, what reason does Scrooge’s nephew Fred have to be merry? As Scrooge points out, every Christmas for Fred is “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against” poor Fred.
For that matter, what reason does Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, who applauds Fred’s defense of Christmas have to be merry? What reason do Cratchit’s wife and six children have to be merry? They are desperately poor, living on the slender salary Scrooge provides Bob. Mrs. Cratchit struggles to provide decent meals, sometimes even with meat, for her husband and her children, who are already becoming introduced to the life of the working poor in early Victorian London. Their lives are dirty, laborious, and their surroundings ramshackle. And her youngest son, Tiny Tim, is visibly failing, and very likely to die.
What right do Fred or the Cratchits have to be merry? What are they celebrating? Isn’t Scrooge right, when he caustically suggests that Fred’s celebration is simply driving him deeper in debt, allowing him to postpone the moment when he is forced to confront his failures and, at long last, set his house in order?
And we, here, today. Our Government is shut down, our politics are toxic, with the poisonous ooze of hatred coursing through the veins of the body politic. And we can’t pretend that because we’re in New York that this poison can’t effect us. Seventeen years ago, our skyline was changed forever, nearly 3,000 people died, and 6,000 were injured in an act of terrorism the reverberations of which are still vibrating through the fabric of our Nation.
And the tide of home grown hatred has lapped to the very doors of St. Barts. Two weeks ago, when I was standing on the steps greeting parishioners as they came inside for the 11:00 service, one of our ushers called me to the front door nearest to 51st Street. There, etched in the door in red pen, were two swastikas. Right outside. Right here. At St. Barts.
What right have we to be merry? What reason have we to be merry?
Mary and Elizabeth live in a time of terror, of ethnic hatred. The land of Israel occupied, Roman soldiery brutally enforcing the Emperor’s order, extorting whatever they wanted from the people living under occupation, and tax collectors doing the same. The religious establishment tainted and corrupt, complicit with the occupying forces, and life dependent on submission to brute force, with no real hope for justice.
Even Mary, Jesus’s mother, knew from her own experience the fear of death by execution. We are told in Matthew’s Gospel that when it became known that Mary was pregnant, that Joseph decided to save her life from a death by stoning by taking on himself the shame of what he believed was her crime. Only after this remarkable act of mercy did he receive the illumination that led him to welcome her as his bride.
Her cousin Elizabeth was granted the gift of a child late in life, but at the time of Mary’s visit featured in today’s Gospel, her husband remained mute, from causes she did not know. The future of a widow—and Zechariah’s age and his new infirmity had to have her concerned for him—was extremely precarious, as was the future of Elizabeth’s child.
And yet, the meeting of the two women is joyful. Not merely the happiness of two relatives meeting after a time of separation, either. No, this is a meeting marked with the solemn joy of those who see that history, which may be, as Nicholas Meyer wrote, “replete with turning points,” is at a turning point like no other, and that these marginalized women—Elizabeth, long thought barren, and Mary, whose child nearly cost her her life—are the catalysts for what is about to begin.
About to begin, I say, but in fact, Mary presents it as a fait accompli, a thing that is already accomplished. A destiny fulfilled. Hear her words:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Mary is not speaking of things to come, but as things accomplished. She believes—no, she knows—that the intervention of God into the world through the birth of Jesus will by its very occurrence create the very changes she describes.
Elizabeth knows it too, as witnessed by the fact that the older woman defers to the younger, and forthrightly tells her that she is “blessed among women” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And, in fact, so it has been. Rome fell, but here we are in a national landmark that is in fact a sanctuary raised to honor the child borne by Mary, and I am speaking these words under a beautiful painting of her and her child. Yes, evil still exists. Yes, discord and strife tear at the world. But they are not normative, not what we consider the measure of right conduct. Nobody reveres Herod, Pontius Pilate, Annas or Caiaphas. They are only known at all by most people because of their roles in the story that begins tomorrow night.
The old brutal dreams of might makes right, of tribe and power defining what we call the good has been on the run ever since Jesus showed us a better way, since God so loved the world that She offered her only begotten Son to be with us, not to lead our tribe to supremacy, but to lead us all to the deeper wisdom of love. Not just a wishy-washy ethic of sentimentality, but a way of life. That Way, as the disciples and their direct successors called what the world terms Christianity, involves a commitment to seeing, every day, the beauty of a Child of God, in every person, even when we are divided by them. That Way has survived empires, wars, corruption of its so-called leaders, and still is going strong. It doesn’t need an army. It never has. It has you, each and every one of you, who is here, not out of compulsion or social pressure, but because you want to be. Because the Way speaks to your heart.
Scrooge had a kind of wisdom, but it was of the lower kind—pragmatic wisdom, how to survive in a hostile world. Fred and the Cratchits refused to accept that the world was by its nature hostile. Their wisdom was deeper than his.
What right have you be merry?
The right of a child of God, in the world created by God.
What reason have you to merry?
The best reason in the world: that we are here again together, about to celebrate the end of those old, dark ways, and to repel the dark with the Light of the World.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
 See John Wirenius, “The Man of Mercy,” http://stbarts.org/worship/sermons/the-man-of-mercy/ (December 18, 2016).