“And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”
Ponder,- I like that verb. The dictionary defines it thus: to consider something deeply and thoroughly; to meditate; to weigh carefully in the mind; and links it with the Latin verb pendére, to be suspended, to hang.
Well, we reached Christmas day after a period of waiting in suspense, a period in which there was so much to think about, of more or less importance.
Where were we going to spend Christmas and with whom?
What were the perfect presents to give or receive? What menu would please both traditionalist Uncle George and the alternative cousin Tabitha, who is, of course vegetarian?
But now we can forget all of that for another year and turn our thoughts to what really matters, as we ponder for a few minutes the reality we celebrate. So let me tell you a story.
There was once a girl named Mary. Her parents were poor, as were most of the people in their village, and she was their greatest treasure. They were not an ambitious family, and Mary’s girl-hood dreams involved little beyond finding a man who was kind and gentle and would one day be a loving father to her children.
Enter Joseph, a good match since his trade was always in demand, and an older man, who would surely provide all the stability that Mary had dreamed of. Their engagement was announced, and Mary and Joseph prepared to live happily ever after.
But then . . . angels got involved.
If you’ve read much Scripture, you’ll know that things tend to get a little complicated when angels
appear. This was certainly Mary’s experience when an angel arrived and told her she was to have a son, Jesus who would be the Saviour of his people.
Mary was a sensible girl, with sensible dreams and what the angel told her just didn’t fit into the world she knew. She plucked up her courage and asked,
“How can this be?” but, to be honest, the angel’s answer wasn’t that much help.
“Nothing is impossible with God.”
Maybe not, but it’s hard to see how that might reassure a young girl in a small village, faced with one of the oldest problems on earth.
In the weeks that followed, Mary had so much to think about…
Who would believe her story of an angelic visitor? Would the community cast her out as a fallen woman?
Would Joseph really be able to love the child when he was born?
Oh yes, Mary had plenty to ponder.
Things were even more confusing, of course, when the baby actually arrived. The circumstances of the birth itself must surely have made her question whether the angel had got his facts straight. Surely if her child was truly God’s son, things might have been expected to run more smoothly for the family. To be homeless on the night you give birth to your first child is no young mother’s dream, but the angels weren’t done yet!
In the middle of the night on a hillside outside Bethlehem, there was a sudden explosion of light and music and voices above a group of shepherds.
What price heavenly peace as they crowded excitedly into the stable?
Still, I guess they were a welcome sight to Mary, bringing her reassurance that she hadn’t imagined the whole thing, that this baby boy of hers was all that had been promised. All the same, it can’t have been easy as the weeks passed and the wonders of the birth-night became a memory. In many ways, life went on just as usual, with only a few clues along the way that this was no ordinary baby. For the most part, Mary just had to get on with being his mother and trust to the promises she had been given. As Jesus grew, this must have been ever harder. Instead of becoming a rabbi (surely the most appropriate profession to bring a boy closer to God) or a ruler (if this child was indeed to rescue Israel) her firstborn became a travelling preacher, mixing not with the great and good but with tax collectors and prostitutes. Finally, his story seemed to end in the most terrible way, with a cross on a hillside outside Jerusalem.
What price Son of God then?
For her those years between Bethlehem and Calvary were surely a time of suspense, when she tried to stay with the promise while wondering if God would ever actually deliver on it. Nothing turned out as she’d expected, and the ending of the story seemed far removed from that night of stars and singing angels. What could she do but ponder? Where had things gone wrong?
Her experience of confusion and disillusion may well match our own, as we leave behind the awe-struck wonder and expectation that once made Christmas a magical time of infinite possibility and promise.
For us too, the darkness in the world threatens to destroy our hopes and dreams, of the people we want to be, of a world built on justice for all, of peace and happiness for all. Today we not only pause to remember the Holy Innocents, those children murdered by Herod in his determination that nothing should threaten his rule over Israel, we are also confronted with continuing massacres in the land we call Holy. That is hard to deal with, just days after we heard the song of the angels – but though our dreams may fade, we too need to pause, and to ponder, for the angels also brought a promise for us
“Good news of great joy that shall be to all people”.
Like Mary we don’t yet see how that will be worked out, but like Mary, we are never far away from the answer to our longings. Even as she wondered and pondered, her beloved Jesus, truly God’s own Son, was there beside her. As events unfolded, she may sometimes have lost sight of the truth of this, have doubted that he was really all that had been promised, but though her sight was blurred, he was with her all the time. Jesus with her beyond the stable and the star, beyond the moments of miracle when all seemed clear, beyond the desolation of the cross…with her, most of all, on the morning of the Resurrection.
Through the weeks of Advent, while we waited to celebrate the birth of Christ in church we sang the ancient hymn “O Come, o come Emmanuel”…
Emmanuel, of course, is another name for the wonderful counsellor, prince of peace, the baby in whose face we see the face of God. It is the name that tells us the message of Christmas, for it means
“God with us”.
God not remote and untouchable, but as close and as intimate as a baby held safe in his mother’s arms.
God with us whether we recognise him or not.
God with us in our realities...not confined to the more sentimental Christmas cards that sanitise the reality of labour and birth in a stable, that present us with lullabies for babies torn from their mother's arms and murdered by angry soldiers...God there in Gaza, in Zimbabwe, in all those places where we can see least hope, least evidence of redemption.
Ponder that, if you will.
Mary pondered, until at last on Easter day there was no room for doubt. She knew with glorious certainty that the song of the angels was played out in the resurrection of that first-born Son.
Who knows when a like moment of clarity and recognition will arrive for us?
It might be at Easter, it might be in July, or perhaps not until next Christmas. Meanwhile, we must simply keep on pondering,- and treasuring in our heart the knowledge of a God who loves us, and dreams greater dreams for us, and for the world, than we could ever manage..
A God for whom nothing is impossible, a God with us today and always, both as the babe in the manger and the man on the cross, born once in Bethlehem but born in us today.