"O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever." Psalm 118:1
For this year’s Advent devotionals, I want to focus on gratitude and the Christmas story. For Week 1, let’s take a look at gratitude for family.
Luke tells the Christmas story from Mary’s point of view. When an angel visits Mary and tells of her blessing, he also tells her that her barren relative Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Two miraculous pregnancies at once in one family! What a cause for celebration!
Except that, while Elizabeth’s pregnancy is a late-come answer to long prayers in a long marriage, Mary’s pregnancy is fraught with social peril. Mary is a virgin, betrothed to Joseph, and is expected to stay a virgin until he brings her into his house. The angel only appears to Mary, not her whole community, and the disgrace of a pregnancy for Mary at this time might have ended her life, especially if Joseph chooses to make her disgrace public, as is his right.
Mary is in a very precarious situation, and she knows it. So she leaves home and goes “with haste” to visit Elizabeth, whose unborn son John will prepare the way for Jesus’ adult ministry. Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting is one of my favorite scenes in the Bible.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’”
The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth in so she knows exactly what is going on. She accepts and welcomes Mary with an outpouring of love and joy. What a safe haven this must have been for Mary, whose great trust in God put her in such a dangerous position within her culture.
The Book of Matthew opens with Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, setting the Christmas story firmly into a family context and into the lineage of kings. This list, however, is a bit cold and scholarly, and Matthew immediately jumps into Joseph’s point of view, making the story more personal. Joseph is engaged to Mary, and now she’s pregnant. How embarrassing! Being a kind man, he doesn’t want to disgrace her so he plans to put her aside quietly.
Enter an angel. In a dream, the angel tells Joseph to take Mary because she hasn’t disgraced anyone; the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he needs an earthly father. Joseph has been chosen to be this father, and he accepts the truth of the dream and becomes a family.
This is what family love is all about: acceptance, welcome, blessing, support, dependability, faith. Sometimes, our earthly families fall short in this, at times spectacularly short. That’s when our own capacity to love and forgive is tested. And sometimes, we fall short in love and forgiveness as well.
But often, our earthly families are sources of unending support and love, a direct channeling of the steadfast love of God. We have a parent or aunt or uncle or grandparent or cousin or sibling or child to whom we can flee “in haste” in times of trouble.
And they leap for joy at our coming.