One little phrase in the Christmas story has always stuck with me; it comes at the end of Luke’s story in which we are told that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
I mean, think about it… the whole story. Angels appearing out of nowhere, whispers of infidelity that Mary and Joseph faced, visiting Elizabeth, 9 months of pregnancy, a few days travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to find out that there isn’t space for a weary, pregnant woman and her probably dazed, confused and dishevelled spouse, Joseph. Was there a mid-wife even to be present with Mary? And the blessed shepherds, which we idolize in carols and story, who were actually a rag-tag group, would we have wanted them traipsing through with strange words about more angels and bright lights—might we have thought too much moonshine—literally and figuratively?
The story continues: a mere 8 days after the birth, when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple for the purification required by Jewish custom, she encountered more things that gave her more pause to ponder. Simeon talked of blessing and then of those who will rise and fall in Israel and a sword piercing, and Anna talked of the deliverance of Israel. Perhaps, it is Mary’s heart that was pierced by the uncertainty of it all and the sheer madness of what had happened. What promises! What expectations! What hopes. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” we sing. That is so true!
In the midst of all that chaos, amidst the worry about what Anna and Simeon said and what it meant, amidst all of the uncertainty of living with a Roman occupying force and an elite ruling class more and more distanced from ordinary people, Mary still treasured these things. And she pondered them!
I like Mary’s pondering because I do a lot of that! I’ve been pondering John Pavlovitz’s Advent reflection book called Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. In the introduction, Pavlovitz wrote, “When we place our feet firmly in the dirt and dust of the everyday within the Gospel stories, we see Jesus getting low to meet us there. It reminds us that more often than upon the jubilant summit of the radiant mountaintop, the spiritual journey is spent in the low and shadow places. We are there in that beautiful lowness when we live humbly. We are there when we seek forgiveness. We are there in our grief and suffering. We are there when we kneel in reverent awe. We are there when we spend ourselves on behalf of someone else. When we place ourselves in these postures, our perspective changes, our attitude towards people shifts, and we become agents of love in a way that actually resembles Jesus. We perpetuate his character through our very lives.” This feels a lot like Mary treasuring and pondering. This feels a lot like the message of Christmas, God getting low to meet us where we are in the ordinary joys and muck of living.
We take encouragement that the shepherds were the first to hear the news. And even with Mary’s consternation that at such an inopportune moment, they decided to act on the news they’d received. Into the challenging life they lived, the angels appeared to lowly shepherds and the promise was given: their lives meant something, they were cherished, life was worth living.
I remember reading a story sometime earlier in December about a ministry student receiving a card from some family; it was one of those Christmas family cards, everyone wearing the same sweater and the backdrop was a lovely Christmas scene; idyllic! The person telling this story said that her young daughter, bringing in the mail, asked, “Who are the Smiths?” The story-teller was a little worried; she was recently divorced and her former spouse was quite spiteful and she said she was worried that her daughter, looking at the picture, would wonder why their family wasn’t so perfect. When the story-teller looked at the card, trying hard to remember who the Smiths might be and not being very successful, she finally turned the card over and found it was an advertisement for a photography studio! The point? God’s desire for us isn’t perfection, but peace. Joy. Maybe a little hope. Add a little justice into the mix. And then stir it about with love. There will be lumps, but it will be genuine and authentic, something to treasure.
Mary and Joseph weren’t the perfect family and almost weren’t anything at all if they had listened to the rumours and innuendo in Nazareth. And yet. And yet. God comes to us vulnerable, dependent upon our love, inviting us into that vulnerability where new life springs up. Yes, the Word became flesh and dwells among us. It is here, now. The incarnation, as I said last night, isn’t a miracle, but the natural extension of thinking about God’s creation and the phrase, “And God saw that it was good.” The creation is God’s incarnation and we are part of it.
Jesus’ birth is the reminder to us to treat life with a sacredness that cherishes the earth and all people. No wonder Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart. She was ahead of her day. She knew the significance in her heart that she bore God into the world, but just as importantly, God was already in the world… in her, in Joseph, in the shepherds, in the cattle, in the donkey that carried her, in others struggling to live life, in you and in me.
Yes, we celebrate Christ’s birth today, but we celebrate the birth of love anew into the world that reignites love in our lives and a renewed way of living with peace, hope, joy and love.
Merry Christmas. Amen.