This year is my first Christmas holiday season in St. Louis, and this is also my first time experiencing the traditions of Gethsemane Lutheran Church. I get excited about learning new things, so I’m enjoying it! I’ve learned a new liturgical setting for singing at Holy Communion—it’s beautiful, and I’ve done my best to sing the correct notes. I’m not used to having a pink candle on the Advent wreath, so that’s new for me, but I like it.
But there’s one thing that has really surprised me. I’ve come to appreciate how much this church values tradition and ancient Christian practices and the ongoing pedagogy of liturgy—the way our actions in worship can teach about what we value as people of faith. So it surprised me that during this season of Advent, when the liturgical color on the altar is—what?—blue(!), that there is so much of the color red up here decorating the front of the church.
Now listen: I am not up here inviting the wrath of the altar guild. I notice all the blue, the liturgically appropriate color for Advent, and I definitely notice that the Christmas tree is covered in Chrismons, and they are liturgically appropriate for Christmas. Do you know the liturgical colors for Christmas? The day of Christmas, which includes Christmas Eve, is gold, as are holidays that celebrate the life and eternal life of Jesus (so Easter is also gold), and in the season of Christmas—the Sundays following—the color is white.
The Chrismons are all white and gold, and if you don’t know what Chrismon means, it’s a combination of the words “Christ” and “monogram.” If you look closely at these symbols on the tree—and I do encourage you to take time to look closely—they are crosses, interlocking circles or triangles to signify the Trinity, symbols from other stories in the Bible important to salvation history. Find the snake in the tree and tell me later what story that comes from. But all these symbols teach something about the truth of God, or signify the name of God, like the fish shapes that sometimes spell out the Greek word ichthus, the Greek word for fish, because those are the letters that spell out the Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. So the Christmas tree in the sanctuary is covered in symbols of God. Imagine a wall covered in spray paint, tagged to determine whose territory you’re in—this tree is tagged as God’s territory.
None of this explains why there’s so much red: red bows, red flowers, red everywhere. Why? I have some guesses.
We’re closing in on the winter season, which officially starts next week, and the leaves have mostly fallen off the trees and all that’s left outside are barren sticks, pale yellowed grass and decomposing leaves in shades of brown. Maybe there’s some deep green in the pine trees and other evergreens that persist through the cold months. The only red I see outside are in the tiny berries that cluster on some bushes. Maybe on holly branches. These little pops of red are just enough to catch your eye, and it stands out amid the dull colors of the vegetation in this part of the world right now.
These same clusters of red berries caught the attention of people living centuries ago—it is said that the Celtic peoples noticed holly bushes, the bright red and green, and brought branches into their homes during the winter as a reminder that life persists, that there can be protection and prosperity even during the cold and snowy winter. So the wintertime practice of keeping the red and the evergreen have been around for a long time.
There isn’t much red in creation, so when we decorate, we kinda bring out the red with bigger bows, bigger flowers. We seek and we find it, and we find it because we look for it. We make the red larger. You could say: we magnify it. You magnify the things you want to be sure to see, to make it bigger, to understand more clearly, to raise up the importance, to draw attention and help others to notice, too: there’s something beautiful here, it’s worth paying attention! You don’t want to miss this.
When you look up here at the front of the sanctuary, you can guess that there are things we value because of the size of them: not just a decorative cross but a giant cross; not just a table at which to eat but a huge altar; in the center of our assembly, not just a small pan of water but a huge bowl of water as a baptismal font. These things are big to communicate how important they are to us, how important to our faith are Holy Communion and Holy Baptism and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What would the world be like if you magnified the things that are really important?
Could you sing along with Mary, celebrating her pregnancy and the miracles proclaimed to her, saying, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” We sometimes call this song by the Latin word Magnificat, the word that means “magnifies”—Mary is saying, my soul magnifies the Lord.
What is it like to magnify the Lord, to zoom in on something important and give you a whole new perspective?
Think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: detailed flowers painted on huge canvasses, beauty magnified. Her first large-scale flower painting was called Petunia, No. 2, and you know the size regular petunias are: certainly not bigger than the palm of your hand. She made her painting 30 inches by 36 inches, magnifying the flower to much larger than life-size.
About that time, O’Keeffe commented, “Nobody really sees a flower, really. It is so small; we haven’t time. And to see takes time. So I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.”
If you were an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe, if you could draw people’s attention by taking something small and making it huge, what would you want to draw attention to? Mary and Elizabeth talk about joy so huge that they want to magnify the Lord: to zoom in, to look even more closely, to make the Lord bigger, if that’s even possible.
Very often, God uses the tiny things, people who don’t seem socially powerful or even significant, to accomplish greatness. Martin Luther wonders about this, how did God choose Mary, writing: “[God] might have gone to Jerusalem and picked our Caiaphas’ daughter, who was fair, rich, clad in gold-embroidered raiment, and attended by a retinue of maids in waiting. But God preferred a lowly maid…”
God has often found the small, seemingly insignificant people to lift up as leaders. Micah, a prophet from the eighth century BCE—before the common era—was from a small town outside of Jerusalem, a place of little significance. But he was given the perspective of a prophet, to call out the problems during the time when the nation was split into two parts: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.
The prophet Micah sees the great political and religious power of the city of Jerusalem, yet within that capital city is a king who is weak and humiliated. So Micah shifts his gaze to the town of Bethlehem, which the nation of Israel will remember is the birthplace of the great King David. The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today recalls Micah’s words of hope: “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
The new thing for the future isn’t a brand-new idea but has roots in the ancient past. This is where we are to understand Jesus’ origin story: born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and raised in Nazareth of Galilee, another insignificant place in the countryside. From these locations in what we might call fly-over country, God can do wondrous things. O little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee! God has zoomed in and focused on these places, magnified their importance.
How do we also magnify God in our lives? When you look at your calendar, consider how you spend your time, how are you magnifying the things that are important in your life, giving more time and space to things that you value? This will require obedience and humility, taking time to notice. This is discipleship. This is what it is to follow Jesus, to magnify God in our lives. What would happen if we get up close, if we really pay attention? Would that change the way we see the world, the way Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers changed the way we see flowers, if we would just take the time?
Look long, and trust in God. Because Mary goes on beyond magnifying God: she magnifies God’s mercy, magnifies God’s strength, magnifies God’s justice. God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly! God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty! God has been faithful to the promise of mercy.
What would it look like to draw attention, to magnify justice? Red ribbons on the candles—magnify the light! Red flowers around the altar—magnify the presence of God! Red mittens on the mitten tree, collecting items needed in the cold season to come—magnify God’s providence!
How will you magnify God in this season? How will you “zoom in” on God’s grace? Or how will God’s grace “zoom in” on you?
We may not all be visited by angels, as Mary was. Not all of us are pregnant, not all of us are female, but each one of us bears God within us—in the Holy Spirit given to us at baptism. God’s mercy has magnified us.
 Christmas Colors: Their History and Meaning — Red, Green, and More (rd.com) https://www.rd.com/article/christmas-colors-green-red/  http://contentdm.okeeffemuseum.org/cdm/ref/collection/gokfa/id/757  https://thecultureprojectblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/paintings-you-should-know-georgia-okeeffes-petunia-no-2/  Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, ed. Roland H. Bainton, Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1997, page 12.  Micah 5: 2