Christmas lights at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina
We’re especially drawn by the tender joy and companionship in that part of the Christmas story where Mary visits her older relative Elizabeth and is greeted with these words, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you are carrying.” Elizabeth adds, “As soon as I heard you greeting, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 41-44). We know so well the story of their shared lives—of how Elizabeth’s child John would eventually pave the way for the coming of Mary’s child Jesus who would be proclaimed as the Messiah.
Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas writes, “The Christmas story begins with joy—visceral joy, ecstatic joy, a joy that moves through the characters’ bodies, drawing their lives together.” But it doesn’t stop there. He reminds us that we’re included in the story. “This is also our story, of you and me and the life we share. We’ve been brought together because of the joy of the gospel—a joy that leaps within us, stretching us toward one another, the ecstasy of shared life, fellowship through Christ, community in the Holy Spirit” (The Mennonite, Dec. 2015: 8).
Elizabeth’s heartwarming greeting elicits Mary’s song praising God and reveling in the way God is turning our world upside down. Lauren Winner says she once read Mary’s song on a park bench at a jazz festival and this prompted the recognition that it’s like jazz. A jazz “musician takes what she knows of scales and modes and the melodic theme and creates something new—in response to what the other members of the band are doing, or even in response to some random ambient noise” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).
The genius of jazz lies in improvisation. As Mary responds to what God is doing she latches onto the example of Hannah’s response to God’s gift-pregnancy of the child who would become the prophet Samuel. We can easily recognize how Mary improvises Hannah’s song. “My heart exults in the Lord,” Hannah sings. She also rejoices in how God inverts the social order, “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (I Samuel 2: 1-10).
But Hannah isn’t making up her song on the spot either. She’s drawing on the yet older song that Moses’ sister Miriam sang after God provided a way for the former Hebrew slaves and to cross the Red Sea and delivered them from Pharaoh’s powerful pursuing army.
Jazz moves, swings, and improvises by working with a common theme in response to a new situation. That’s what these three women in the Bible are doing. We can draw inspiration from them and do likewise in response to the challenges and opportunities of our time. As a people of faith, how do we improvise and swing in our present, ever-changing American social and spiritual landscape?
Lauren Winner writes, “In response to these changes, the thing to do is not to despair; nor is it to invent from whole cloth. The things to do, rather is to invent from the cords we have. Pianist Frank Barrett says that ‘the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.’ This is true of churches, too. The best church is always on the verge of falling apart—and life with God has always involved making new combinations from the essential practices of our faith” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).