Christmas cards have begun to arrive in the mail at our house, a happy reminder of the connections of family and friends we have scattered across the country and even across the ocean.
These holiday greetings may serve as the most substantial – and sometimes the only – communication we have with some of the senders, yet the greetings seem as intimate as if we had seen each other just last week.
Among the most precious cards we receive are those photo cards – you know the ones I mean, you probably get them too. Maybe you even send them.
They come in many shapes and sizes. Some are “flat” cards and others are like the more traditional folded cards, with a verse or a story written on the inside. But they all bear the image or images of lovely faces, frozen in time. I love to look at these cards during the rest of the year.
For our family and friends with children still at home the annual Christmas photo-card serves to chronicle how much children have grown and changed (and they aren’t the only ones, if you know what I mean!). Others bear the images of family pets, vacation spots, and photos of other significance in the lives of the sender.
You know that as the sender put this card together they probably scoured their collection of digital, Instagram and Facebook photos and other pictures from the past year, and they chose the very best ones; the ones with faces full of smiles and wishes for joy, love and peace, goodwill, good health and good cheer.
A couple of years ago, there was one card that stood out as a bittersweet reminder of the true gift of this season, whether the sender realized it or not. Its significance remains with me to this day.
The greetings came from an old neighbor of ours. I opened the envelope to discover not one, but two photo cards inside. The first prominently featured lovely pictures from the highlight of the year – the wedding of one of the sons of the house, along with other pictures of events leading up to the big day.
Contained in the same envelope, was another photo card. From the center of a collage of action-photos leaps forward the smiling image of our neighbor’s husband Lloyd, who had passed away that summer. Beneath his beautiful, broad grin, a caption read, “I’ll be there with bells on.”
I can only imagine that Lloyd’s wife included this photo as a testament to the fact that although he is gone from our sight, Lloyd is still truly present in Spirit; in all the family gatherings, and in the hearts and memories of all who love him, especially during the holiday season.
But as I contemplated the message for today another word came forth, that spoke of magnificent Good News for us and for Lloyd. And it cast new meaning on the caption beneath our old neighbor’s photo, “I’ll be there with bells on!”
In the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, both women pregnant with significance and promise, it is God who is “there with bells on.”
Hope and joy, prophecy and fulfillment are met together and cast the scene in song – Mary’s song, the words of which we all just read.
Yet, you have to admit, it’s an unlikely picture that we have here.
Elizabeth, the over-the-hill, unassuming priest’s wife, carries within her womb the most improbable of gifts for herself and her aging husband.
Mary carries an even more unexpected gift, for who would believe that this girl of no particular significance, an unwed, teenage virgin, no less, might actually carry within her womb not only a child – but the very Son of God, conceived through the Holy Spirit? For heaven’s sake!
And yet, as the older woman sets her eyes on her young cousin, the baby, John, dances in her womb, and his mother is filled with the Holy Spirit, as the angel Gabriel had foretold during the annunciation to Zechariah.
Moved beyond imagining, Elizabeth sings out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Then in wonderment, she continues, “Why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me? The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!” [The Message translation].
And Mary, whose own heart was dancing, does the most amazing – and perplexing thing.
Had she been filled with doubt and angst, we would have understood it.
If she had expressed worry and fear, we would have been right there with her.
If she would have run in tears into the arms of her kinswoman, overcome with the burden placed upon her and the ridiculous situation in which she found herself, we would identify with her.
But in her humility, in trust and in faithful obedience to the will of God, what does she do?
Safe in the embrace of her kin, Mary can do nothing but extol the wonders of God as savior who fulfills the promise of the ages.
And so, she sings out her own song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servants. 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.”
On this Sunday, the messenger and the embodiment of God’s love are here with us, with bells on! They come together and through their earthly mothers, sing forth the promise of the ages.
Mary is overflowing with praise for God, who has made it a habit to take down the powerful and haughty from their high places.
This God has rescued and will redeem her people. She knows this to be true because God has declared it through the prophets of the ages and more recently through an angel, to her.
Now, through her song, she declares God’s strength and mercy, mightiness and grace:
God not only notices the lowly ones – the hungry and naked ones – the poor and disenfranchised ones – the powerless and the rejected ones – the immigrant and the refugee – the homeless and the unemployed – the diseased and the dying – the addicted and the mentally ill, the prisoner and the outcast, but God lifts them up.
God promises that our hope is not in vain.
God is here with bells on for the lonely and isolated, the hopeless and the helpless.
God shows up.
God does what God has promised to do.
But that’s not all - God uses the most unlikely means – a virgin birth – to deliver up God’s mercy and salvation to all people. God uses the most unlikely of symbols – the cross – to redeem all the broken world to God’s righteousness.
Mary’s song is a confession of the upside-down nature of God’s favor and love. Mary’s and Elizabeth’s songs together form a confirmation of hope and the fulfillment God’s promise.
This song of Mary’s reaches across the millennia to us today. We may feel far removed from the action of our gospel story. After all, there are no pregnant virgins running around claiming God’s favor and mercy in 2019 – at least none that I know of. The meeting of two kinswomen in ancient Judah, might seem to us like a quaint but unrealistic story; a fairytale.
But Elizabeth’s reactions, reflections and song invite us to reflect on the ways that God continues to act in our world. Because God is here, “with bells on.” The same God who saw his incarnation through a humble teenage girl’s whispered “yes” is at work in the world.
Every time we reach out in sympathy, kindness, forgiveness and love toward those who struggle, hunger, thirst, or for any who are in need of love, God is here with bells on.
Every time we stand up for the underdog – the outcast – the disenfranchised, we act in accordance with God’s mercy and abiding Spirit, and we echo Mary’s “yes.”
Every time we tell our faith stories or testify to where we see or have experienced God’s work in the ongoing story Christ’s coming, God is here, with bells on.
We are surrounded daily by death and dying, yet this God who uses unlikely people and means to do the impossible, uses a cross to make a mockery of death and open the gates to eternal life.
Like Mary, like Elizabeth, we too can declare that at the coming of the Lord Jesus, we will “be there with bells on,” because we are the unlikely recipients of God’s grace and promise.
May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that through them the improbable, impossible, indescribable love of God has come into the world through a child whose first bed was a simple manger, whose coming is not for a season but forever.