A WORD TO TREASURE
Christmas Eve; December 24, 2016
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
– Luke 2:19
More than any other holiday, Christmas is a time of memory. There are things we do at Christmas-time exactly the same way, year after year. There are certain recipes, handed down from previous generations. The sight or smell or taste of these foods pulls us straight back to an earlier time, recalling family or friends no longer with us. There are decorations, taken out of storage sometime after Thanksgiving, that will end up in exactly the same place in the house, year after year.
Then there are the Christmas-tree ornaments. In our house, there are so many of them! They live in tissue-paper nests inside their storage boxes in the attic: there’s no way we could fit them all on the tree in any one year. But getting rid of any one of them is perilous, because of the stories behind them. We don’t want to lose touch with our memories of the child who made it, the place we lived in when we bought it, or the ancestor from whom we inherited it. Claire and I treasure those ornaments in a way completely unrelated to their cash value — which isn’t very much at all.
Surely you have similar treasures in your home, that you take out and display each Christmas. They are likewise vessels of sacred memory.
In the Harry Potter novels, there’s a magical object that serves as a vessel for memories. It’s called a pensieve (p-e-n-s-i-e-v-e). J.K. Rowling invented the word by combining two others: “pensive,” which means the act of thinking deeply; and “sieve,” a vessel with many holes in it, that lets the water run through but filters out everything worth keeping.
In the books, Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwart’s, uses his pensieve to offload his own thoughts. It’s a shallow stone bowl, incribed with magical, runic symbols. Inside the bowl is a luminescent soup, composed of multicolored, spaghetti-like strands.
“I use the pensieve,” Dumbledore explains to Harry. “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, (Scholastic, 2002), pp. 518-519.]
What’s more, a wizard like Dumbledore or Harry can stick his wand into the pensieve, pull out a glowing strand and press it to the side of his head. The thought magically leaps the gap into the wizard’s own mind. That way, he can experience firsthand the memory of another.
There’s a part of the Christmas story from Luke, chapter 2, that functions as a sort of pensieve. It lays bare the source of sacred Christmas memories, themselves. Verse 19 says, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
In order for the story of Jesus’ birth to come down to us, somebody had to witness it. That “somebody,” Luke tells us, is Mary. The Greek Orthodox call her theotokos or “God-bearer” because she carries the Son of God in her womb. Yet this passage also teaches how Mary “bears” Jesus in another sense. Through the writings of Luke — who did not himself witness these things, but serves as her secretary — Mary keeps and later shares the theological message of who Jesus really is.
Let’s examine our New Testament pensieve, now, and see where the memories come from. We must start with a very brief — but deep — dive into the original Greek language.
In some English translations — like the NRSV we read from — it says Mary “treasured these words.” In others, it says, “Mary treasured these things.” The Greek word, here, that literally means “word” (or something very similar) is rhema. It’s not the same as the more familiar term, logos. (Surely you’ve heard that word before.) When John begins his Gospel with “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” logos is the term he uses. Logos is one of the most notable names for Jesus Christ in the Bible. Jesus is the living Word, the logos of God.
Rhema — the word Luke uses here, when he says Mary “treasured these words” — is different. Rhema is closer in meaning to our English word “saying.” We could translate this verse in this fashion:“Mary pondered all these sayings and treasured them in her heart.”
Well, what sayings are these? Mary has very little to say, herself, in the New Testament. She’s got a very big part, but it’s mostly a non-speaking role. So, it’s not her own words she’s treasuring. No, the sayings Mary is treasuring in her heart are certain things the shepherds have breathlessly reported to her. But they were not even the shepherds’ words, originally. What the shepherds spoke to Mary are the sayings of angels: “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Back on the hillside, the angels also told the shepherds something else, that they likewise pass on to Mary: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
“A sign for you”: in an age before birth certificates, this is the messiah’s I.D. It’s the way the shepherds know this baby is different from all the others who may be resting in Bethlehem that night. They come down to the city, and start asking people, “Where is the baby lying in a manger?” Crazy question! What would a baby be doing in a manger? Who would bed their kid down in a feeding-trough?
Finally, they come to someone who’s not so flummoxed by the question. Yes, there was a very pregnant Galilean couple. A few hours ago they were knocking on doors, looking for a place to take them in. There, in that house: that’s where they’re staying.
Sure enough, on the lower level of that house — in the stable area where the livestock are kept — the shepherds find this refugee family: the mother and father and their newborn boy. Where else would you lay your baby to rest, in such a place? The room is all but empty, and rather filthy. Why, upon the clean hay of the manger, of course.
The shepherds look at one another in astonishment. It’s a perfect match with the angels’ description! Positive I.D. Yes: this is the holy child. It can be no other.
As the shepherds share with these exhausted parents the message of the angels, Mary takes the memory and adds it to her pensieve. She folds it into her own testimony, the sayings she treasures up and ponders in her heart: the sayings that will later make their way to Luke who writes them down.
Let’s look, now, at that word “pondered.” Now, when most of us hear the word “ponder,” we probably picture somebody deep in thought. Pondering, to most of us, means a quiet, focused, passive sort of activity. Kind of like daydreaming, with a serious purpose.
But that’s not the meaning of the original Greek. The word translated “ponder” — sumballo — literally means “throw up against.” It’s like stones thrown together in a bag: two or more clashing ideas that can’t be reconciled. They bang up against each other, creating confusion and dismay. Pondering is the act of sorting that conflict out: or at least, learning to live with it.
Which, as it happens, is exactly what we’ve got here, in the Christmas story. We’ve got heaven, bursting into this everyday world. Ours is not the sort of world where angels typically drop by to have a chat, informing a teenage girl she’s going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Nor is this the sort of world where we expect to look up and see an angelic army descending from the skies, singing out a public-service announcement to humble agricultural laborers about the birth of a king. (Have you ever seen such a thing, in your life? I know I haven’t!)
When the angel first appears to Mary in chapter 1, to tell her she’s going to have a baby, Luke tells us a little something about Mary’s reaction. He says “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Pondering is what happens when we’re feeling perplexed, when we’ve been given some new and troubling information that doesn’t match our previous experience.
We’ve pretty much lost that aspect of the Christmas story. The events of that night are so well known, the image of the holy family in the stable so iconic, that it’s easy to forget how strange it all is. Most people have even forgotten what the word “manger” means. To them it’s a synonym for “cradle” or “bassinet.” A manger is a feeding-trough: not the sort of place where newborn babies are meant to be laid down to sleep.
Later on, in the second chapter of Acts, on the Day of Pentecost, Luke uses an almost identical experession. He says of the apostles — who have just witnessed the miraculous tongues of fire and the wild, disordered speech — “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
There’s that word “perplexed” again! When God breaks into our lives, doing something surprising, something unexpected, the experience is one of disruption — not peace and tranquility.
That runs counter to the way many of us like to imagine that first Christmas. So many of our carols are so gentle and laid back, they could be lullabies. Some of them are lullabies: “What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” “The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” “Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Don’t think for a moment, though, that the scene in Bethlehem, that holy night, was one of perfect peace and tranquility! Mary treasures these sayings of the angels, pondering them in her heart, because her life seems to be spinning wildly out of control. Those words are, at the moment, her only rock of spiritual certainty. She and her faithful husband Joseph are in a strange city, far from home. She’s exhausted after giving birth. And this tiny lump of human flesh, this dear little stranger, slumbering for now on the soft hay, will soon start demanding every moment of her attention, day and night, for many years to come.
Mary may have been young, but she was fierce and courageous. She fought for her marriage, and for her son’s survival. She lived with ambiguity. Sometimes she even doubted — but, at the end of the day, she believed!
Maybe you came here tonight looking for a vision of peace and contentment: the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay. If you have, it would be no surprise: because that’s how much of the Christian world has come to regard this holiday. A Christmas well-kept, most people think, is one in which they come away with a feeling of pleasure that all is right with the world.
Mary and Joseph probably didn’t rest all that well in that stable. It was cold, and uncomfortable. And it stank of more than their baby’s dirty diaper. Not long after their son’s birth, they would flee for their lives, one step away from King Herod’s forces of state-sponsored terrorism. The holy family would be homeless for years, until it was finally safe to make their way back to Nazareth.
In all the intervening years, Mary remembered. She treasured in her heart the sayings of the shepherds. When her son was old enough to understand, she told him what the angels had predicted for his life.
The true message of Christmas — the word Mary treasured — is not that all is right with the world. It’s that much is wrong with the world, but that there is one who, by the grace of God, can set things right — if we trust our lives to him. There is no king, nor prime minister nor president ever born who can do that. It is only Mary and Joseph’s boy, the homeless messiah, the one who spent his first night sleeping in a feeding-trough.
What shall we call him, the child of the manger? We shall call him Jesus: savior and Lord!
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.