In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.
8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Let us pray: O Lord of Light and Love, startle us again with your birth, that like Mary we might ponder all these things in our heart, and experience the thrill of hope. Amen.
For me, one of the great joys of Christmas is the no-rehearsal-necessary Christmas pageant. If a church can let go of the polish of perfectly memorized lines, there is the delight of kids deeply pondering which character they will be that year. I remember just laughing at God the year when my son put on a wooly sheep hat and my daughter donned her halo, especially because they had seemed like one of God’s more stubborn animals or lesser angels until about 4 minutes before arriving at the costume table. I remember three year old Sam, the very reluctant cow. He was lowing, and then leaving, through the entire song the Friendly Beasts. And I remember the child who came dressed in his own costume and threw me for a loop. “I am the Christmas monkey! Where do I stand?” His Dad’s eyes looked apologetic. “Well, aren’t you a wonderful surprise! Just go stand near Jesus who loves wonderful surprises.” But no matter who showed up at the manger, there would always come that time when children of all ages would get quiet and then cup the Christmas light in their hands and sing Silent Night. And I would look at every face, the toddler in the stained Christmas sweater, the grandfather with his special tie, cheery faces and teary faces, and I ponder all these things in my heart. God with us in life’s rich pageant. It always catches in my throat.
I love that Bible holds on to this line: But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. Maybe Jesus, her new baby, was finally asleep, and she pondered how it was that he with her, with those tiny infant lips, the shape of angel wings. Maybe Joseph was asleep too, and she pondered how he was still with her, despite scandals and travel and the weight of things far beyond his paygrade. Maybe she heard an animal rustle in the night or wind conversing with the starlit trees and pondered what those angels had said to her. She pondered the ruddy faces of those shepherds breathlessly describing Good tidings of great joy for all people, a savior, Christ the Lord. The hormones alone would make a new mother cry, but hope for people working the night shift everywhere, great joy for all, including the overtaxed towns like this one, I bet that thought caught in her throat.
Ponder is a good word for Christmas Eve. Ponder is when the heart becomes this long telescope and an ancient holy light reaches all the way in to our actual life and something new is born. Maybe an idea, maybe hope or courage, maybe grace. Ponder is when you feel the weight of something, really cradle it in your arms without moving too fast to summarize it. This heavy English word comes from the same root word as pound. But the Greek word in the first telling of this story was symballo, which means to piece together, hold together. It’s the root of our word symbol. Mary held two truths together at the same time. The first truth was that this was no symbolic baby. There are no such things as symbolic babies. Only real ones with bodily fluids and cries that command people to act and one singular life curled inside their bones like an oak tree in an acorn. But Mary held another truth at the same time. That this child was God with us, love in soft flesh, the first born of creation with the grunting breaths of a newborn.
The text doesn’t say Mary explained these things, though preachers are always tempted to do that. The text doesn’t say Mary asserted these things, though our world craves a bullet-pointed list. She didn’t unpack these things or film these things or label these things. She kept these things, pondered these things, doing anything more would have been like putting a pin in a live butterfly. The pinning down would kill the thing itself.
The author Madeline L’Engle described it beautifully,
This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.
So, tonight, I invite you to ponder along with Mary. Ponder that your actual life, whatever its particular shape and smell is right now, is also where and how God is with you. Ponder that this season of your life, as overtaxed as it might feel, is also a kind of birthplace for something beautiful that God is doing. Ponder a love so wise and fearless that it found the only way to slip past all our hard-wired human defenses, which was by becoming completely undefended as an infant. And then ponder how that love grew and grew, through Jesus, showing us the way back to God in the only way we’d ever believe, completely with us in our greatest joy and darkest pain.
This year marks the 800th birthday of the Nativity Scene. In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi received permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with two live animals – an ox and an ass – in a cave in the Italian city of Grecio. People were invited to gaze upon the scene and emotionally engage with the story. The church of his day did not speak the language of the people and so most people did not know the stories of the Bible, so Francis gave them a way to a ponder the miracle for themselves and amazingly, these reenactments and symbols spread around the entire world. Every culture pondered and then every culture experienced the nativity in the colors, fashion, architecture and animals of their time and place. Love was born again and again and again.
Every Christmas, my friend Nancy ponders where she is in the Nativity story. She’s had Mary years when everything in her life felt like it was changing. Donkey years when she felt she was just there with little to add but her own warmth. Shepherd years with too much working late into the night and a strong reminder to run toward joy. Magi years when she had to discern where her gifts were most needed. She pondered. Pondering is not just a nice thought exercise in a fraught world, pondering is entering the story on the road that is uniquely ours, in our specific lives, so that we can share that light in the world too. Mother Teresa said, “It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you.” Where are you in the Christmas pageant this year?
This year, it dawned on me that all those forces that seemed so inescapable in Jesus day, Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Herod. These forces that were so dominant over people’s lives and world events such that it felt like nothing could ever change that, you know what, they don’t even have a line in the script 2000 years late. They are merely a footnote, a cross-reference, to the prince of peace. So, if you want to be sassy, you can say to whatever forces seem inescapable in your life right now, to brutal narcissists like ones that are still trying to control the world or local bullies like cancer or old hang ups in your brain or the family issues that get very loud this time of, you can say to them tiny tyrants, listen, pal, you’re no more than footnote to the love of God.
The headline is this: For unto us, a child is born. Unto us, a son is given.
And we have seen his light and his light is the light of all people.
And the darkness has not, cannot and will not overcome it.
And that light worms its way into us and then we get to give it away.
That grace we taste at communion makes its way into us and fuels our weary hearts with hope and then we get to share it.
These are the gifts of God, for you, the people of God. Thanks be to God!