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Season's Greetings!

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 11

Text: Luke 1: 39-56

This past Monday morning, I was waiting to meet someone for an 8 a.m. coffee at Clover in Harvard Sq. It was a dreadful morning, rainy and cold outside. I arrived early, shook off my jacket, ordered my cup, took a seat. I was waiting for my appointment and for my order to be called when, to my surprise and delight, I heard my name called with an almost exuberant joy- and by a complete stranger, no less!

Okay, it was just the woman at the counter calling me to retrieve my order, but, I’m tellin’ ya, the way she said my name woke me up way more than a coffee ever could. She was like, “Dan!” And for a moment, I felt strangely honored to be there. Did she practice how she calls names, I wondered? When they trained her, did they teach her the trick to speak through smiles because it changes the way people hear words? I picked up my coffee, thanked her and returned to my seat. As I sat sipping, I heard the same cheer in her voice when she called out the names of other customers. Phil!.. Frances!... Lila!... I can’t say why but with each name called, each greeting brought an almost giddy smile to my face. It even set me in the mood to listen to whatever hipster version of Christmas carols they were playing overhead.

Lest I digress further, did you catch what Elizabeth just said to Mary in our story from the first chapter of Luke? It’s a line that may get overlooked given what follows – that bold and beautiful song of Mary’s, a.k.a. the Magnificat! Let’s not lose the exchange this time. Elizabeth says: “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy! Talk about an exuberant voice! In fact, the theme of greeting runs throughout the chapter. Recall what the Angel Gabriel first says to Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The text goes on, “And Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” That’s the third time the word greeting has appeared in this chapter! And it shows up twice more! In this one chapter, the word for greet or greeting appears five times. The angel boldly greets Mary! She ponders the greeting. Mary greets Elizabeth. Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child leaps in her womb. And Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, rounds it out by exclaiming to Mary, ”For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting the child in my womb leaped for joy!” What I want to know is, what ever did these greetings sound like?

In Biblical studies repetition of words means we should pay attention, though the fact is that the translation in our bibles dulls down the original meaning. The word for greeting in Greek is chairo and it has several definitions! The first is ‘rejoice’ or ‘rejoice exceedingly.’ Another definition is ‘be well’ or ‘thrive!’ And still another is ‘Hail!’ What’s more, the Greek root word– char - means – ‘favorably disposed,’ or ‘leaning towards.’ And, it’s cognate with charis, which is the Greek word for ‘grace,’ or to ‘delight in God's grace.’ The literal translation is ‘experience God's grace or favor,’ ‘to be conscious of and glad for God’s grace.’ Charis! As in grace and peace be with you!

Similar greetings of grace and peace are what began Paul’s letters. They are at the foundation of the Greeting we use to begin our worship every Sunday. They are also, at some level, the basis of our weekly “greeting of peace,” which is an ancient practice of the church that – far more than a hug or handshake – was once a ritual kiss of peace! Given all this etymology and context, can we imagine those robust greetings in the first chapter of Luke carrying all of these connotations – joy, grace, peace, favor, and even a sense of thriving and a leaning-in to experience and be glad for the grace of God!?

A deeper question, of course, is why start the gospel with such emphasis on greeting. Why name it five times? Let me cut to the chase. I think it’s because Luke knew we all need practice when it comes to greeting one another, and how much more so when it comes to meeting and greeting Emmanuel, which means God with us! Mary learns the lesson of a good and God-like greeting early on, from that at first perplexing encounter with the angel. From then on, the sound of his greeting to her, and her greeting to Elizabeth, then Mary’s greetings back to God in the Magnificat and in her being the first to welcome and hold the Christ child, would carry in it joy, hope, beauty and peace and purpose. We can hear it now. Ave Maria! Hail, Mary, full of Grace! She is first greeted, and then she greets Elizabeth, and then she sings and greets the world, as one who knows what it means to be beloved, and to carry God’s own heart inside of her.

As we prepare our hearts to be greeted by the angelic sounds of our choir and musicians, I invite us each to ponder… What is the sound of God’s greeting to us in this season? And what is the sound of our greeting to others? Are our hearts and souls still feeling up to the annual task of delivering those so-called “season’s greetings” this year? Can we learn something from Mary’s song about how and who we should be greeting, from her magnified sense that God’s heart and favor lies with the poor, the outcast, with all homeless, refugee or immigrant young families that are looking for a room? Open your hearts now and in the moments of listening ahead. Through the artfulness and beauty of song, can you first hear the sound of God’s greeting you as beloved, and favored? Can you let what’s inside of you leap for joy?

And by all means, when you go into the world today, share a new and deeper understandings of those so-called season’s greetings! Even and especially if it’s out of character for you, or not part of your corporate culture or your coffee klatches, go ahead and belt out a greeting as loudly, proudly and robustly as you can! Stretch yourself to be like Gabriel, be like Mary, be like that angelic barista! That wet and rainy Monday morning mood of our nation, and that real fear of our country’s increasingly xenophobic political rhetoric and reality puts it all the more on us to go out there and make someone’s morning, not just with hallmark cards, but by putting our voices into it, by putting our hearts into the sound of our greetings! It’s all the more on us to carry forth the ancient tradition of soulful salutation and greetings! Speak your greetings with gusto. Sing them out with joyful praise! Call a neighbor or a stranger “beloved” or “beloved in God” for they are just that, in God’s sight! Or even go old school, Mr. Roger’s “Howdy, neighbor” style. Do whatever it takes to make them feel honored and welcomed, no matter who they are or what they look like!

Even better, learn how to say greetings in new languages, so that’s not all Greek! To our Muslim neighbors, that we may see at the big event at the Mosque tonight, greet them with – as-salam aleikuma! – Peace be with you! Say it to our Latino neighbors, la paz sea contigo! Learn how to greet someone in Syrian. I asked our friend Tony Alkhoury, a Syrian divinity school student what they say to each other. He said the daily greeting is mar-haba. He told me people say it so often they sometimes forget what it means. It means “God is love!” Beautiful, right!? Or, consider joining or listening to a choir, even now. Learn how to sing and hear those ancient Christian greetings of peace, and joyful greetings to God in Latin, if not Greek. Pax vobiscum – peace be with you! Gloria in excelsis! Glory in the highest! Or, as in our piece for today, Gloria in altissimis Deo: et in terra pax!

Change the way you greet someone, as the beloved and favored child of God, as the sister, brother and sibling in the Spirit that they are. Make way for a whole new day! Amen.

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