With the astounding modern success of the epic French novel Les Misérables, which today has been spun into a musical and a movie that took home three Academy Awards in 2013, it is hard to imagine the original angst of the story’s famous French author, Victor Hugo. Hugo had turned in his manuscript of Les Misérables, and awaiting publication, wanted to get word from his publisher (Hurst and Brackett) about the status of sales. Would the novel succeed or not? His telegram is said by the Guinness Book of World Records to have been the shortest message ever recorded. It was this: a simple question mark. That question mark summed up the anxiety and wonder that Hugo had about the success or failure of his work. What was the publisher’s reply? The original Paris printing of the novel, 7,000 copies, sold out in 24 hours! When the publisher received Hugo’s inquiry…he responded simply and emphatically. The return telegram contained only this: a single exclamation mark. A long explanation wasn’t needed. All that needed saying was clear and definitive message that all was well.
Our text for this Sunday, depicted in art work over the centuries as “The Visitation,” describes an interaction which, were it not for the players involved, would be homespun in its simplicity: two pregnant women who are relatives meet up and congratulate one another for the babies each one is about to bring into the world. Only one of the women (Elizabeth) is long past the usual age of child bearing and the other (Mary) is a virgin who will bear the promised Savior of Israel. Not only had Elizabeth endured the stigma of being childless…an especially painful condition for women in the world she inhabited…she belonged to a nation that ached for the promised One of God, a Savior who would bring peace and justice to a world where the mighty got their way and the poor were oppressed. Mary’s visit (and with Mary, the child that Mary carried) were proof positive that God was faithful to God’s promises and that God’s gift of unconditional love would ultimately triumph in a world where human love and ordinary human achievement left people broken and unfulfilled.
Elizabeth’s song of joy when she greets Mary is a sign of God’s “exclamation mark” to the collective question mark of humanity: “the hopes and fears of all the years” (LSB 361, 1) that were met in Jesus on the very first Christmas. In a world overflowing with crisis, confusion, and tension, in the day-to-day world of tragic events that cause unanswered question to be asked, the gift of the Christ child is God’s definitive reply that brings hope and healing to even unlovable people: Jesus is the sign that God’s love is at the bottom of life! As Paul puts it, God’s exclamation mark, God’s “Yes” is to the found in Christ: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
What difference will God’s “Yes” in Christ Jesus make for you, this Christmas?