Have you heard of the word “Iconoclastic”? It’s not a word we hear or use very much. An iconoclastic person is one who “attacks traditional images, ideas or institutions.” But as violent as the word iconoclastic might sound, those who are iconoclastic aren’t necessarily devoted to destruction. In fact, the work they do is usually quite creative and constructive. Therefore it can be said that to be “iconoclastic” is to be an “image-breaker.” According to the magazine Fast Company, iconoclasts do what tradition-minded people say cannot be done, and they do it by seeing things differently.
Consider Walt Disney, a decent illustrator who could have made a living drawing cartoons but realized animation’s full potential when he saw his drawings projected on the big screen. That’s seeing things differently.
Think of people such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Or David Filo and Jerry Yang, buddies at Stanford while Ph.D. candidates in electrical engineering. Tinkering with the World Wide Web to complete their dissertations they began to organize all the Internet sites that interested them. As a result, they developed a whole new concept called “Yet-Another-Hierarchical-Officious-Oracle,” or YAHOO.
Consider Pierre Omidyar, who started eBay. Or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Or Craig Newmark, who was working as a financial analyst for Charles Schwab when he started Craigslist.
Then there’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who began a service in the mid-1990s called BackRub.com. They changed the name to Google, which is a play on the word googol, a term used to describe a number 1 with 100 zeros behind it. In other words, Google, according to the vision of Page and Brin, is a Web tool that can organize an infinite amount of information.
These are all iconoclasts— image-breakers. They see things differently, shatter traditions and make contributions that are creative and constructive.
Which brings us to Mary and Elizabeth. Two women who saw things not for what they are but for what they might be. And they showed themselves to be iconoclastic—image breakers. And they show us how to have an Iconoclastic Christmas.
Conventional wisdom of the first century would trap Elizabeth and Mary in the box of second-class citizenship, with the extra constraint of shame placed on Mary, an unwed mother. But what does Elizabeth say when Mary greets her and John gives her a kick in the womb? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Elizabeth sees that God is breaking tradition and doing things differently, by sending the Savior of the world through a young girl named Mary.
Then, Mary, who because of her knowledge of simple biology, shows herself as iconoclastic when she believes the angel Gabriel about having a baby without a human father. That takes some outside the box thinking— that takes faith beyond the conventional.
Then Mary again responds iconoclastically in our text for today. Breaking into her Magnificat, Mary exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She praises God for looking with favor on her.
She continues, “His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation,” predicting how God will turn the world upside down— scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry.
She knows God isn’t trapped by traditional ideas or institutions and that God will show favor to all— not just those who have the most earthly power or possessions. That’s an image-breaker, for sure because back in the first century, it was assumed that material wealth was a sign of God’s favor, while poverty signaled divine displeasure. And, in truth, we do the same today, whether we practice prosperity theology or simply pass judgment on people who ask us for “handouts”.
But Mary questions this, saying God’s mercy is “for those who fear him”—those who respect, revere, and depend on God— not for those who have the biggest bank accounts.
Bringing her song to a big finish, Mary sings this surprising work of God isn’t entirely unexpected. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
To a world accustomed to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer God might appear to be a true iconoclast. But, in fact, God’s desire to turn the world upside down is grounded in “remembrance of his mercy” and “according to the promise he made to our ancestors.”
God turning the world upside down is for the benefit of all, not just some.
So what could it mean for us to celebrate an “Iconoclastic-Christmas”?
Let’s get creative and constructive, seeing things not for what they are but for what they might be.
We all know what we see at Christmas: Decorations—both understated and eye-popping. Presents—both given and received. Parties—both tasteful and over the top. Visits from family members and friends—both enjoyable and stressful. That’s the way it is.
But Mary invites us to see things differently and to find true Christmas in a new place— in the gift of God’s favor, because here’s the thing…God really loves you. And God’s affection has nothing to do with your education, your achievements, your job security, your bank account or your marital status. It has nothing to do with your race, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.
In fact, the surprising insight of Mary’s song is that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary announces that God favors us in our lowliness, in our humility, in our simple willingness to lean on God. That’s good news for all of us, especially in a year of political turmoil, natural disasters, sex scandals, nuclear threat, racial violence, and personal instability.
When the world around us doesn’t seem to care about us, or judges us, or shames us, God favors us.
When the future seems uncertain, God promises to do great things for us. Mary announces that God will never let God’s children down.
That’s image-breaking, expectation-shattering, radically reassuring.
But that’s not where it stops—nor should it.
According to Mary, an iconoclastic Christmas cannot be limited to new insights into our personal relationship with God. It also has to include participation in what God is doing in the world. This means signing up to work with Mary’s son, Jesus, to bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.
Scot McKnight in Christianity Today writes, “Mary’s words are a declaration from a voice at the bottom of society. It is a voice crying from the depths that God’s Messiah was finally bringing justice for the poor. It is a voice proclaiming a new order— an order centered on Mary’s son, the One who was coming to save his people from their sins.”
That’s an image breaking statement about Christmas. Which means in order to celebrate an “Iconoclastic Christmas” we have to pull our heads out of our holiday boxes and join Jesus in working for a better world, one in which the powerful are held accountable and the powerless are given support and opportunity.
Each of us has a role to play, whether we’re expressing our values in the voting booth, helping a family find affordable housing or tutoring an immigrant in English.
Jesus wants us to know we are favored by God. But he also wants us to share that love and acceptance with others, by reshaping our communities along the lines of God’s new order, with opportunity and justice for all.
Christmas is always filled with sights of wonder. Among my favorite will happen tonight when we see a fully lit Advent Wreath.
But Christmas is also about seeing things differently. Breaking traditional images. Getting outside the box.
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth isn’t just a meeting between two pregnant women. It’s the introduction of a Messiah named Jesus to a prophet named John.
The kick of an unborn child isn’t simply a sign of fetal vitality. It’s the muscle-flexing of John the Baptist, leaping for joy.
Mary’s unplanned pregnancy isn’t a problem for her to endure. It’s a reason to rejoice in the great things God is doing.
And the child Mary is carrying: He’ll be a mighty king but not a traditional one. Instead, he will be the Messiah God uses to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
Christmas shatters our expectations and pushes us outside the box— including the beautifully decorated holiday box. It blows away our understandings of what usually happens when two women gather to support one another. It helps us see things differently— to see a hug between Mary and Elizabeth as a meeting between Jesus and John; a kick in the belly as a fist-bump of recognition; a song of praise as a celebration of God’s ability to turn the world upside down.
Christmas turns us into iconoclasts… “Image-breakers.”
Yes, Christmas is all about seeing what might be, instead of what is.
That’s what Elizabeth did when she welcomed an unwed mother with joy.
That’s what Mary did when she rejoiced in God’s favor.
That’s what Jesus did when he entered the world to save us from our sins and bring hope, peace, joy, and love to all.
So may we join them in seeing Christmas differently.
May we seek to break the traditional and limited images of Christmas.
May we endeavor to see what might be instead of what is.
May we embrace this way not just in a season, but as a lifestyle all year long.
Do this, and like Mary and Elizabeth and others like them, we will celebrate and live an image breaking, Iconoclastic Christmas. Amen.