Eight years ago, while serving as a curate in my first position out of seminary, I experienced Christmas Day worship for the first time. Though I had often gone to Christmas Eve services before ordination, I suppose it never occurred to me to go to church on Christmas Day. I was probably still in my pajamas or on the road to see family. So imagine my surprise when the Rector told me there would be no music at the Christmas Day service. I was shocked! After all this time, patiently waiting through Advent music, on the actual day of Christmas, we were not going to hear any music?!? I threw what some might consider a bit of a temper tantrum, and was told I should talk to the people who normally go to Christmas Day services.
Of course, my Rector knew what she was talking about. As I talked to Christmas Day attendees, I discovered one universal truth: they loved the spoken Christmas Day service. First, they all went to a Christmas Eve service, so they got their carols fix the night before. Second, they loved the quiet respite in an otherwise chaotic day. A quiet service on Christmas Day was a godsend. And third, they loved the Christmas Day service because it was a small, intimate service of what they called the “faithful;” much like what happens when you throw a party at your home and everyone but your close friends go home at the end of the night. You kick off your shoes, find a warm beverage, and enter into quiet, meaningful conversation with your friends. Music, in those parishioners’ minds, would have hindered the intimate, contemplative, peaceful vibe they loved.
In a lot of ways, having a quiet Christmas Day service is like taking a cue from Mary in our gospel lesson today. After the chaos of travel and birthing a child in less than ideal accommodations, after shepherds have seen blinding lights and hear the triumphant chorus of the multitude of heavenly host, when everything quietens down, all that is left is a mother, father, and child, and some shepherds who seem like old friends. I have always imagined the shepherds bursting through the doors, talking on top of each other to tell the story of the angels. But I wonder if perhaps the scene was a little different. Knowing full well the baby has arrived in less than ideal circumstances, and that babies are notorious for crying when disturbed, maybe the shepherds were whispering their intimate tale to the holy family. Maybe they were those gathered at the end of the party, sharing in quiet, meaningful conversation.
I wonder if this might be true because we get one short line about Mary at the end of our text today, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Exhausted, fatigued, weary Mary takes the enormity of what has happened: to her, when Gabriel came to her; with Elizabeth, who further revealed the angel’s proclamation; with Joseph, as he shared his own angelic story; and now with the shepherds who tell of yet another angelic encounter. Mary takes all the bits of information – all the encounters she is privy to – and ponders them. She takes a personal moment to sit quietly in the enormity of it all to ponder. In some ways, she is a mother like anyone else – one who has carried a child in her womb with all the normal doubts and concerns that come from every ache, pain, and discomfort. But in other ways, she is nothing like other mothers. She is an instrument – pregnant without her own doing, carrying a child who will be bigger than anything before, and mothering someone who will never fully belong to her, but to the greater world he will soon save.
The funny thing is, pondering is an activity that would hardly ever make an appearance on our Christmas to-do lists. We have been scurrying about this past month: decorating homes, sending cards, attending parties, planning liturgies, hosting guests or finding hostess gifts. We have either been caught up in the joy of the season, reveling in the 24-7 Christmas radio stations, or maybe we have been lost in our grief of all that is not this Christmas season. Regardless of whether you are off to a Christmas celebration with twenty or more people, or having a quiet day alone or with one other, there is likely to be little true quiet: our minds are way too noisy for quiet today.
And yet, quiet pondering is exactly what Mary does today. She takes all the noise and chaos – both outward and inward – and she pauses for pondering. She hits the pause button on the movie called life, takes a deep breath, and drinks in the miracle of Christ’s birth. She stops talking, turns off her internal conversation, and listens. She makes room for God in that rustic, foreign room, with people who are not her own, letting her body and soul contemplate the enormity of the nativity: God incarnate; Messiah arrived; Eternal life made possible. The wonder of that moment is enough to silence Mary, giving her much to ponder.
That is our invitation today too. I know today is the least likely day for a moment of wonder, pondering, and contemplation. But you are here. You took a moment away from whatever today will be to sit at the manger with Mary and ponder. Drink in the miracle of Christ’s birth, the gift of God incarnate. Stand before our God in holy quiet and reverence as we pray and eat a different meal. Remember “how God became one of us, remember how Christ still joins us at the Table, remember how we are fed by him in order that we might live as his body in the world.”[i] These kinds of sacred moments are so rare in life. Receive the gift of pondering at the manger with Mary today, and take that quiet out into the world with you, giving your heart the gift of true celebration and joy. Amen.
[i] Kimberly Bracken Long, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 121.