In our basement, we have a stack of Christmas DVD’s that we always pull out this time of year and at some point during my sermon writing in the basement this week, I looked up on the shelf to see this stack. As I thought about my sermon and looked at those movies, a connection rose in my brain. Christmas movies love to talk about isolation.
I noticed the old Bill Murray classic Scrooged – and of course the original that is was based on A Christmas Carol. Bill Murray’s character is a jerk TV producer, and he has no friends, most of his family wants nothing to do with him, and his co-workers all hate him. A scene depicts his isolation beautifully takes place at the beginning of the movie, after he fires his employee who dared question his authority, treats his assistant horribly. He sits alone in this opulent office that perfectly fits the 80’s, drinking by himself on Christmas Eve because no one else wants to spend time with him. A picture of isolation.
I noticed another classic: The Santa Clause, this one starring Tim Allen as Scott Calvin. Scott is divorced and spending Christmas alone with his son. The scene that strikes me as a picture of isolation comes when dad burns the turkey and is forced to take his son to Denny’s, where they are out of egg nog, and chocolate milk, and apple pie. And when they look around, they realize that they are in the Room for Dads who Burned the Turkey…some even sporting injuries from the oven. Each one, in their own silo, is lonely and isolated.
Finally, in one of the most moving Christmas movies, and isolation scenes, of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart, as George Bailey, has had a tragedy strike him and his business. In an emotional scene, he drives through the snowy streets, crashes his car, and ends up on the ledge of the bridge, ready to jump in. The isolation is palpable as he says to himself, “what if I had never been born,” contemplating suicide and envisioning how it might make things better for everyone in his life.
And, as I looked up at this pile of DVD’s it struck me why the theme of isolation is repeated so often in Christmas movies. I think it’s a common theme in Christmas movies, because it is a common theme in life. At a time of the year when everything is meant to be hopeful and happy, there are a lot of people who simply feel alone. Divorces separate families. Death brings grief instead of joy. Strained relationship means that people choose to be apart at Christmas. Some of us wonder if we will ever get married in the first place. Economic hardship makes it hard to live up to expectations under the tree, or make it impossible to “be home for Christmas,” or, like George Bailey, bring about the deepest desperation. It really can be an isolating time. And so, our movies show this isolation, especially at this time of year.
How many of us understand that isolation personally, in our families, in our homes? Not solitude – the intentional choice to be alone for personal and spiritual reasons. Solitude is great and incredibly important. But isolation – where the choice to be alone is forced upon us, and strikes us to the depths of our souls.
This is not just a reality of the last 50 years of popular movies, but I think that there is something deeply resonant throughout human history, including the journey of Mary, from which we read today. Imagine with me the internal life of Mary in the moments after the angel has come to her and announced that she is pregnant. It is a picture of isolation.
She is relationally isolated. She must have known immediately that this announcement would have put into jeopardy her relationship with her betrothed Joseph. He had the right to throw her out, even stone her for adultery. They were preparing for a life together, and now that relationship has been disrupted.
She is economically and culturally isolated. Even if Joseph doesn’t prosecute her to the fullest extent of the law, without him and his income, she and her child would be alone dependent on the welfare systems set up by society. She would likely be unable to find another husband, be saddled with a lifetime of shame.
She is emotionally isolated. Imagine an angel coming to you and telling you that you now have God incarnate inside of your womb. For the first and only time in history. No pressure, huh? Who else could she talk to about the experience? Who else would even begin to understand her place in society, in history, in the emotional location in which she would find herself?
Her isolation is profound.
Mary is isolated. But look at how the story unfolds from this moment of isolation. God steps in, and Mary’s journey takes a very different track.
First, God gives Mary community. In the midst of isolation, God reaches into her isolation and creates community. Mary could have felt very alone, but God gives her Elizabeth in order to share her thoughts and feelings with. To engage in community. In relationship. Luke tells us that she spent several months with her cousin, enjoying each others’ company and celebrating their joint pregnancies together. Her choice to engage brings her a sense of community and of renewed relationship. Renewed trust – in God, and of those he sent her to be with. God creates community, when Mary needed it the most. Henri Nouwen says that this story is “one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening.” God gives Mary community.
Next, God gives Mary a voice. Biblical scholar Nancy Rockwell compares Mary to the Old Testament prophets, and it is a comparison that makes sense to me. Moses was visited by God and given a voice. Amos marched into the halls of power to speak of justice. Elijah stood toe to toe with the king and queen and 850 prophets of Baal. And Mary is like all three of these, wrapped into one! As soon as the angel visited her, she loaded up the donkey and marched a long distance, by herself, mind you, to the home of her cousin. Remember that Elizabeth’s house was also Zechariah’s house: a local religious office who would have represented the religious establishment. And she shows up on his front step with a prophetic word of justice – The Magnificat. Mary’s song is a political manifesto – a prophet’s declaration of a new world order of God. She proclaims a world of justice, where the low would be lifted up, and the high, like the priests who fail to do justice – looking at you here Zechariah – will be brought low. Sometimes we speak of “Gentle Mary, meek and mild,” who pulled her blue cowl up over her head and waited for nine months for the baby to be born. But that isn’t who Mary was. She was an adventurous, powerful, bold prophet of God…like the prophets of old. God gives Mary a voice and she isn’t afraid to use it!
Finally, God gives Mary joy. The comparison is often made between happiness and joy. Happiness depends on our external circumstances. Joy depends on what is inside. We know the rest of Mary’s story – that Mary’s journey will not be one of happiness. But it will be one of joy – of deep contentment even in the midst of some of the deepest pain a mother could know. According to Luke, this song of joy tumbles out of her – bubbling up from deep within. The Magnificat is both a political manifesto and a personal testimony. It is her song of God’s gift of joy. God gives Mary joy.
And so, the Gospel from the lips of Mary is Gospel to us, as well. For into our isolation comes a God gives us good gifts, as well!
Like Mary, God gives us community. Molly Marshall echoes this in her book, What it Means to Be Human. She speaks of tutoring kids in after school programs, volunteering for the blind and hearing impaired, feeding those who need a warm meal at the soup kitchen. She invites us to engage with one another, engage with our community, and move from isolation to engagement.
On the last page, she challenges us: “Things do not make us happy if we do not have meaningful relationships with others. When we attempt to insulate ourselves from the hurt of others or our own pain, we diminish the chance of building community among people….We can only become fully human as persons-in-relation. Like the very being of God, moving outside of ourselves in loving recognition of others makes meaningful the pursuits of humanity.” God gives us community.
But also, like Mary, God gives us a voice. Perhaps we will not strap the pack onto the donkey and march to the home of the local religious official to deliver a political manifesto like Mary did. But, we, too have a voice of justice. I hate to give you the bad news, but when we read the Magnificat, we are the rich in the equation. I know that all of us can look up the tax bracket and find someone higher up, but on the global scale, we are all the 1%. And so, who will you speak for? I read a quote that struck me just last night, from J.K Rowling’s character Sirius Black: “if you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” How do you treat those who have less than you? Those with less money, social capital, or power? Youth, how do you treat the less popular kids at school? Adults, how do you treat those in your community who do not have what you have? God has given each of us a voice to speak for the vulnerable and hurting. Each of us has a Magnificat to sing! God gives us a voice.
Finally, God gives us joy. In each of these movies that I began with, there is, of course, a happy ending. But in each case, it is more than just a change in external circumstances, but an internal awakening of joy. Bill Murray learns to not be a jerk, becomes nice to everyone, and saves Christmas. Tim Allen becomes Santa Claus, finds a new way to connect to his son, and saves Christmas. And, of course, the final scene at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, where the whole community rallies around George. And every time I watch it, it is with bleary eyes that I read the note from Clarence at the end: “no man is poor who has friends.”
God has given us joy. Community. A voice. In the midst of our isolation, God reaches in and gives us what we need. This morning, may we open our eyes to the gifts that really matter this season. May we find joy in new participation with one another, new justice for all of God’s children, and new joy in God’s blessings to us!