A Christmastide Reflection - Mucknell Abbey
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Mucknell Abbey

A Christmastide Reflection

After the shepherds’ visit, the Gospel continues:

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2: 19

Many preachers will, no doubt, be making the comparison between Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ situation and that of so many other families all around the world as lives are turned upside down in the midst of Covid-19 restrictions. The Holy family are stuck with each other, alone, in less than comfortable accommodation – a stable – far away from home, without the support of family and friends. They are not sure if there will be food tomorrow, or what the future will bring, or where to find help for what might face them next. The government’s rules probably meant Joseph had to take time off from his contracts, or cancel them, and doesn’t know when he will be paid.

We can take some comfort from the fact that they – even these saints – have been here before us and God did extraordinary things through those difficult circumstances. We just have to get through it as best we can, one day at a time.

We can tell ourselves all that. And it is true. And it might help.

A bit.

But maybe we need more than 5 minutes of uplift, more than second hand reassurances.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2: 19

Much of the story of the birth of Jesus is about what happens to Mary. Mary is having things done to her all the way through. Gabriel turns up and waltzes into her kitchen as if he owns the place. He tells her who she is and what is to happen to her before she can draw breath. Mary cannot get a word in edgeways. Our English translations says, “she was very perplexed” or, “greatly troubled” at his words, but the sense is, “thrown into confusion”, “utterly confounded”. I bet she was!

Then there is a shotgun marriage to Joseph making everything respectable. The village can gossip but they will have to assume the baby is his. Even so, she is packed off to the relatives – Elizabeth and Zechariah – away in the hill country for several months. This should give the locals time to forget the exact sequence of events. At least Elizabeth understands! Next there is a regional census, and Mary is carted off to Bethlehem within days of giving birth. Joseph didn’t manage to get a hotel reservation. Maybe he left it too late, or the journey was slower than either of them thought. A stable, of all places, has to suffice. Then a crowd of shepherds arrive, “fresh” from the fields, covered in stinking lanolin and various other sheep-related exudations, and gibbering with excitement about and angelic vision.

It is all being done to Mary, and around her, and more or less without her after her monumental “Let it be…”. The story moves from one inevitability to the next. Other people seem to be directing the events. Until the shepherds depart and we get a single verse:

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

We suddenly, extraordinarily, arrestingly hear of Mary’s thoughts. Mary becomes the subject (not the object) of events. Hers was a man’s world. A time when men had the education to be the writers and the thinkers and too often gave women little credit. Luke, in his Gospel does it slightly differently. He hints.

We may have begun to think, all be it unconsciously, that all that counts here is Mary’s body. The story has led us this way. The baby is born, confirmed by an angelic vision to be the baby and the job is done. At this exact moment, when we think it is all over, we get an insight that this is about Mary’s thoughts too, not just her body.

God’s intervention in our world, God’s coming among us, is as much about Mary’s interior, thinking, brainy, spiritual world as it is about the physical changes that will happen to her body. Luke, startlingly for a man of his times, points to this with that little verse:

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Mary’s task, her commission, beside all the nappy-changings, feedings, teething, sleepless nights, is to think, to ponder, to contemplate, to have insight to be curious and to wonder. Mary is to be open to God in her acceptance of Gabriel’s message and all that that acceptance will do to her, but she is also to be open to God in her other inner bearing – her outlook, her disposition, her nature, her spirit – her being. And that goes on long after the birth, long after Jesus’ childhood, his preaching-teaching-healing ministry, and long after his agonising death. It carries her though all of this to another birth – that of the church that welcomes us 2020 years (or thereabouts) later.

Throughout the encounters God has with people on earth, all the way through the Bible, God seems to respect people far more than anyone deserves and when they approach, or speak, God listens and responds and speaks to them in turn – sometimes through other people (not least the prophets – but ordinary people too – and on one occasion Balaam ass!) God gets involved with us and involves us. The disposition to see, hear, notice, wonder is key.

For Mary there was something about Gabriel, or the message (or both) that made her stop. She gave attention; the penny dropped. She wondered; the light dawned. She pondered, if only for a moment; and realisation takes hold. She catches her breath. Could this be?….and if it is…do I say…?

”Let is be to me…”

If we are seeking God, pondering, wondering, thinking, contemplating like Mary – even while we are emptying the dishwasher, doing the ironing, exercising, or commuting to work (if we still can) – we will see things God is doing, or saying, or being. They can be tiny. Like a single human egg implanting in a womb, or (as Jesus put it later) like a mustard seed the grows into a huge shrub, or yeast multiplying and leavening the whole batch of dough. I am not going to give lots of examples. There will be different things for everyone’s differing circumstances. Each one has the potential to transform the moment; to change your day; to give hope, and to bring all kinds of things to birth.

Happy Christmas.

Some ideas in this reflection by Sr Alison come from a reflection for Advent by Isaac Villegas January 4, 2017 published by Radical Discipleship in the Theological Animation section: