The text says:
One of the major focuses of the Christmas story is the faith of Mary, who, on receiving perplexing news, replied, “Let it be with me according to your word.” If we follow Mary through all the stories that mention her, however, we find that she, like us, experienced periods of doubt and confusion. She matured in her faith of simple acceptance through deep reflection and came to a deeper understanding of who her son was.
Linda Bausserman, preaching
So, here we are stuck in between two holidays – two totally different holidays, one religious and one secular. In a way it is symbolic of the transitions we make between the religious and the secular. Some of us use this time to reflect on the past year and to think about what’s coming in the new one. The media provides lists of important events of the year, celebrities who have passed away and records which have been set. We get lists of the best and worst of everything. Editorials try to evaluate the events and make projections for the New Year. We even read of suggestions of New Year’s resolutions we might make. I have decided that New Year’s resolutions are a pointless because they never seem to be realized. I have even thought maybe I should make reverse resolutions, as in “I resolve to sleep late and eat chocolate every day.” Despite the fact that the two holidays are so close together, there is rarely any connection made between the two. The Christian calendar begins with advent (four Sundays before Christmas) during which we are to spend four weeks preparing for the coming of the Christ child. We have a big celebration and then what? Generally the only connection between the Christmas celebration and New Year’s Day are resolutions to go on a diet or start exercising in order to lose the extra weight put on with Christmas dinner. What about spiritual weight? Did we put on any spiritual poundage as a result of Christ’s arrival in our lives? Do we even think about it, consider what it might mean for how we live our lives in the New Year?
When you read the Christmas stories and focus on Mary, you notice that she does a lot of reflecting. I can’t think of any one else in the Bible, with the exception of Jesus, who repeatedly takes the time to think. She didn’t start out that way though. If we go back before the Christmas story to the annunciation, her response was to go immediately to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She needed someone to talk to, some one to share her news. I can understand why she didn’t go to her parents – they probably wouldn’t have been thrilled with the prospect of an unwed daughter announcing her pregnancy, even if she had the blessing of an angel. I can also understand her need for some one to talk to. She was a young woman facing her first pregnancy. And the appearance of an angel would send most of us looking for help! So, the two women had lots to talk about. Elizabeth was wonderfully affirming. It is interesting that it is only after Elizabeth’s warm greeting that Mary sings her own song of praise. It is hard to sing praises alone. Perhaps that’s the reason family is important to us at Christmas. Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months until it was time for Elizabeth’s own child to be born then returned home.
We next see Mary on the road to Bethlehem. It is between 80 and 93 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem depending on the route taken. It has been estimated that, considering her pregnancy, it would have taken them a week to walk it. Tradition has it that Mary rode a donkey but there is nothing about that in the Bible so we don’t know. But either way, on foot or on the back of a donkey, it can’t have been a comfortable trip for a woman nine months pregnant. I can’t help but think she must have had some thoughts along the way about God’s timing for this baby. And then, when they finally got to Bethlehem, there was no place to stay and she was about to deliver. She must have been terrified in addition to being exhausted and in pain. Eventually, however, they found a place and a healthy baby was born. But, before she even had a chance to recover, along came a bunch of shepherds with a story about angels appearing in the sky at night. And they began to worship her child! What a night! Emotionally charged, exhausting and confusing. We are told Mary pondered these things in her heart. I have a feeling these weren’t all sweet thoughts about a cute little baby boy. I suspect there might have been thoughts like: Why did God not prepare better for the birth of his son? Why would God abandon us on the road? Why did God guide the shepherds to this place but leave us to find it for ourselves? And what about those shepherds? What was that all about?? Was Mary angry with God? Surely she must have been. But probably also grateful that they did eventually find a place and that she and the baby were healthy. It is clear she had lots to mull over.
Some time later, Jesus was brought to the temple for purification rites and again unusual things happened. Two elderly people, Anna and Simeon, seemed to know how special Jesus was and we are told Mary and Joseph were amazed by what they said. More to ponder about!
We next see Mary in the passage read for us today. This is the scripture designated by the lectionary for the Sunday after Christmas. I thought it strange at first to talk about Jesus at age 12 and then go back the following week to epiphany and the story of the three kings. But, in a way, it is fitting for this in-between Sunday, because it is an in-between story. It is the link between Jesus’ birth and his ministry. It is the only picture we have of his childhood, but it tells a lot about him – and his parents. The family was going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. People typically traveled in caravans and it would have been about a three-day trip. After the festival, Mary and Joseph began the return trip with their traveling companions, only to discover at the end of the day that Jesus was missing. They returned to Jerusalem and after three days found him sitting in the temple with the teachers. Luke says he was listening and asking questions and all were amazed at his intelligence and his answers. When Mary told him how worried they had been, searching everywhere for him, he replied “What made you search? Didn’t you know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?” This passage shows that Jesus began early to study to prepare for his ministry. This is the first time he speaks in the Bible and his first reference to God as his father. Clearly, he was already devoted to his calling. He was dedicated to his education and anxious to learn all he could from his teachers. However, if you had any doubts about Jesus’ humanity, this passage certainly shows that he was a typical 12-year old boy in terms of his behavior. He was so involved and preoccupied in what he was doing that he completely forgot about his parents and their concern for him. Just like kids today. If they are outside playing ball, they forget to come home. If they are in front of an X box, parents don’t even exist. And wasn’t there just a little bit of attitude in his answer? “Why are you so upset, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not in trouble but doing something good.” Jesus probably could have stayed in Jerusalem. He might have found one of the teachers to sponsor him, much like Samuel was taken under Eli’s wing. However, he returned home with his parents and continued to live under their authority. He was subject to the normal childhood limits of obedience and experienced all the give and take of family life.
As for Mary, don’t you just know how she felt? The word translated anxious in the revised standard translation literally meant agonized and panicked. She and Joseph must have been frantic – terribly worried but probably angry as well. We’ve all been there, terrified that harm has come to a loved one; but, at the same time, ready to do some harm ourselves when we find him or her. And then what do you do with all that emotion when you find he hasn’t really been doing anything wrong (aside from not telling you his whereabouts). The young child coming home two hours late and after dark saying, “I helped Mrs. Jones carry in her groceries and she was lonely so I stayed and had a cup of hot chocolate to kept her company. You always told me to be kind to old ladies.” The child wide-eyed and innocent, thinking he has done a good deed, looking surprised that you are so angry. And there you are stuck with your relief, anger and pride roiling inside. We don’t know Mary’s reply to Jesus; but, we are told she treasured all these things in her heart. Poor Mary, she’s back to pondering!
The next time we read of Mary she is no longer pondering but taking action. At the wedding in Cana the supply of wine runs out, and she tells Jesus about it. He replies “It is not my time yet.” But she places him in the middle of the action by telling the wine stewards to go to him. All that pondering seems to have brought her to a new level of understanding and strength. She certainly wasn’t afraid to stand up to her special son either as a youth or as an adult. And, again, he obeys her and there is wine for the party. By this point she seems to understand that Jesus has a role to play beyond being a carpenter and is even encouraging him.
She still has moments of doubt, however. Well into Jesus ministry, when it begins to be apparent that he is in going to get into serious trouble, she shows up with some of his brothers and tries to get him to let her talk to him. She is rebuffed and we see her no more until we find her at the foot of the cross.
She must have done some more pondering in the meantime for at the cross she seems to be a woman of great strength and spiritual maturity. There are no histrionics, no what ifs, no blaming – just silence. Sorrow? Of course. Mourning? Certainly. But she is able to be there supporting him with her presence.
Through all of Jesus’ time on earth, Mary remained a woman of faith despite the trials and tribulations of having an extraordinary child. She was a loving and responsible parent, always concerned for his well being. But she was also responsive to events, searching for meaning when confused. She didn’t turn away from things she didn’t understand or like, but carried them in her heart. Luke says she pondered them in her heart. It seems to me that the difference between pondering and pondering in one’s heart is like the difference between thinking and prayer or meditation. She didn’t just think about things, she prayed about them, meditated on them. Theresa of Avila advised taking your mind into your heart and standing before God. I think that is what Mary was doing. Mary pondered with her whole being and was continually transformed into an ever stronger woman of faith by the process.
Lastly, in Acts we read that after Jesus ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem and Luke says “All these were constantly at prayer together, and with them a group of women, including Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.” So it would appear that Mary’s service to God extended beyond raising her son. She must have been a wonderful source of support for the disciples and all the followers of Christ.
So perhaps we should dispense with the New Year’s resolutions and, like Mary, do some pondering on what it’s all about. What is Jesus’ life about? What does it mean to accept Jesus into our lives? Perhaps we should try standing before God with our minds in our hearts. Mary, like most of us, was not in the limelight; yet, she had a powerful influence and remains a model for us of how to be faithful. Perhaps we too can become even stronger people of faith, able to support and minister more effectively to others, if we, like Mary, do some pondering.