“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Several years ago, I landed a humble Charlie Brown Christmas tree at a church staff white elephant gift exchange. My kids have since claimed it and place in their room each December. The classic holiday story surrounding the festive fichus hinges on Lucy sending Charlie Brown on a mission to “get the biggest aluminum tree you can find…maybe painted pink.” To her chagrin, Chuck and Linus return with the saddest and droopiest of evergreens- the one nobody wanted- with barely enough strength to bear the weight of a single red ball. Yet, the frail tree becomes the centerpiece of their pageant and Linus’ proclamation of the gospel, leveraged as an illustration by endless preachers since it first aired in 1965.
If we are not careful, the story of Christmas and much of the gospel can easily become yet another platform for privilege and power, the glitzy and the glam. The past and present are littered with the co-option of the Christian faith to build empires, exploit the land, oppress peoples, hoard riches, and justify wars. The Christmas season has even been claimed by our consumer culture that aims to capitalize on generosity through holiday shopping sales. Then we hear again Mary’s Magnificat, a subversive resistance to all of this, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:51-52). Every year, when we light this third candle of joy, we are invited to hear again the joyous echoes of this prophetic carol in the midst of seasonal buzz. Each Advent dares us to have the eyes and ears of both Charlie Brown and Mother Mary, to shift our focus to the humble, the people and places oft shoved to the side and dismissed as less, those who take center stage in God’s pageantry.
As I think of the witness of our 119 churches and various affiliated ministries throughout Greater Philadelphia, I am moved by the abundant ways the faithful have embodied much of this spirit. Each year, a Montgomery County congregation takes over the local bowling alley to extend a Thanksgiving meal and fellowship to over 600 neighbors. Every Friday night, a Delaware County congregation hosts a coffee house open to young adults with social and intellectual disabilities. A Chester church has launched a new worshipping community to extend regular spiritual formation and solidarity to caregivers of aged parents and children whose parents are incarcerated. During the colder months, one Bucks County congregation flips its sanctuary into a farmers’ market in partnership with their township while others walk alongside those impacted by the opioid crisis. Churches throughout neighborhoods of Philadelphia have renovated kitchens to provide before school meals to children and “fill the hungry with good things,” hosted artists who partner with city programs and elementary schools to paint murals on their buildings, and others gather in unwalled spaces along the Parkway for Bible study and worship alongside neighbors experiencing chronic street homelessness. We cannot forget the way three congregations in West Philly have combined assets to call a new pastor to relaunch a collective church as they consider where and how Jesus may be calling them to lean into the good news in a context often fraught with violence, addiction, and poverty. The list goes on, each ministry a humble incarnation of the gospel that reaches far beyond trendy seasonal service and “lifts up the lowly.”
This week, as you light your candle of joy, may you also lift a joyous prayer for each of these ministries and so many others throughout our Presbytery. Even more, may you risk the kind of prayer that invites God’s Spirit to spark in your imagination opportunities to lean into love and generosity alongside the humble in your midst. After all, among the humble is where God came down and dwelled as one of us, bringing once more to the forefront of God’s story those often dismissed as least and last.