“Ponder” (Worship 12.16.12)


Luke 2: 1-20

Advent 3


Mary doesn’t say much.  Have you noticed?

We focus a lot of our attention on her seemingly simple “yes” to the angel Gabriel.  We also appreciate her response to her meeting with Elizabeth, her beautiful song of praise and joy and anticipation at what God does.  But by the time she gets to Bethlehem there are no more words.  The way the story is written we don’t even hear the heavy breathing or grunts of her labor.  We are simply told she delivers Jesus and then the tableau takes over – holy family gathered in close and humble surroundings.  There are other people talking:  shepherds, maybe some more angels, onlookers, even the lowing cattle, if we go by one of our favorite hymns.  But Mary has no more words by then.

It’s easy to think that the few words she says are her whole story.  I think that’s how many people encounter her.  But I think her quiet speaks, too.  It’s another way of entering the story.  Just hold onto that for a minute while we consider Elizabeth.

I was struck by the contrast between how I usually read and hear her cousin Elizabeth’s story and how I heard it told last week.  The first birth story we begin to hear about in Luke’s gospel is John’s and it starts with Zechariah and Elizabeth, who, we are told, was “barren” (Luke 1: 7).  I don’t know anyone who thinks that word sounds good or neutral.  I know a lot of people who cringe at it and feel personally hurt by hearing it.

But last week I heard someone tell the story by saying that Elizabeth found she would bear a child “in her wise years” (Jan Richardson, Illuminated online retreat).  Can you hear how different that is?  We know wise means old, so we know it’s unlikely and miraculous.  But it also means wise – she has the wisdom of one who has lived through much of her life already and she is someone useful and important to the family and community because of that.  Not washed up, dried up, useless.  But sage, a source of help, useful – and now useful in an entirely new and surprising way.  Hearing Elizabeth described that way opened her story up to me and kept the cringing out of it.

It also made more sense to me why Mary would make a long trip alone to visit her cousin after Gabriel appeared to tell her about her own unlikely pregnancy. Yes, Gabriel suggests the trip to her, but I don’t think Mary went all that way just to see the reality TV style spectacle of an elderly pregnant woman.  She went to see her wise cousin who, especially now, might be able to offer her some perspective and guidance and companionship and empathy.

How we tell the story matters and how we retell it and imagine it matters.  The wonderful thing about scripture and the cycle of liturgical seasons is that we come around to this story every year.  Back to the annunciation and the manger and the shepherds and angels.  Every year, Elizabeth barren – or wise – and Mary at the end of the night, no more words, treasuring and pondering.  Every year we are afforded another long look and a few reflective weeks to prepare for this scene and what meaning it bears for us.  Every year, our lives mingle with this old and ever-new story and sometimes the light shifts and we see wise where barren used to be.  And we go a little deeper.

Last Friday I was still reflecting and writing for today.  I was home playing Christmas music, making meals, and wondering about Mary and her quiet, pondering ways.  Then I heard the news about Newtown, Connecticut.  I had logged onto Facebook for a moment and immediately saw about 20 of my friends bemoaning violence and praying for Connecticut.  So I went to the news sites and turned on the TV and I saw the unfolding story about the man who killed his mother and then went into an elementary school and killed 26 more people, mostly children.  I watched and listened for a while.  Details were still hard to come by and I wasn’t sure if it was over yet.  It was the most unsettled I’d seen newscasters and commentators in a long while, many of them visibly and audibly shaken.  I went back to Facebook: more prayers, more bemoaning, even some links to helping children deal with trauma.  I considered posting something.  I saw several churches and campus ministries posting prayers and expressions of support for the people in Newtown.  But I didn’t post anything and I logged off and I turned the TV off.  Then I turned the Christmas music back on and wondered again about Mary.

She was minding her own business when an angel burst in to tell her she would be having a baby and that her wise cousin Elizabeth was already pregnant.  To the angel she said only How can this be, since I’m a virgin? and then Here I am, let it be as you say.  Then during her visit to see Elizabeth, when even the in-utero John could recognize what was happening and literally jumped inside his mother for joy, Mary burst into song praising God for the amazing, impossible, just, peaceful, world-changing things God was already doing.  She sings it like it has already happened, even while she’s just found out she’s pregnant and has many months to go. Then, through the rest of her pregnancy, the long trip to Bethlehem, the meager place she and Joseph find to camp out, the delivery in a barn, and the shepherds coming to see the baby with news that they’ve also spoken with angels – through all of that, no more words.  Even when the shepherds leave again, evangelizing along the way, what does Mary do?  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (v. 19).

“Treasuring” has two definitions (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  It can mean cherishing, which is usually how I think of Mary treasuring all those words in her heart, turning them around to look at them from all sides, valuing them, setting them apart from other words she’s heard.  “Treasuring” can also mean collecting and storing up for future use.  Maybe these words she treasures on this raw, intimate, promise-filled night are the ones she will come to again, for future use, when she is standing on a bleak hill watching her son die.

“Pondering” is deep reflection, staying with something as you consider it.  Not trying to think it through, necessarily, but rather giving it room to breathe and to see what you can make of it over time.  Pondering isn’t about decision-making and quick conclusions and getting right to the point.  Pondering is about following a winding reflection to see where it leads.  Pondering takes time.

So Mary treasured and pondered everything in her heart that night.  We don’t know what she thought.  We don’t hear pronouncements or conclusions or 5-point plans for what they will do next.  We only have a glimpse of her, from the outside, treasuring and pondering.

There was a rush to speak last Friday.  Even as the TV journalists weren’t sure how many were dead and they were foggy on many details, they were already conducting interviews with FBI detectives and psychologists and medical doctors.  They were filling up every bit of space and time with words about “what happens in these cases” and “the typical profile of a shooter like this” and “the scars that will be in this community forever.”  I know what they were doing.  I get that in some cases they probably even thought they were helping, but step back with me for a moment.  How can we talk about scars when the bleeding hasn’t even stopped yet?

In stark contrast to Mary, everyone was trying hard to fill up the shock and pain and airtime with words.  There was no way to reflect or consider or ponder in the midst of that.  There was widespread consensus that this happens too much and we can’t stand it anymore.  But right at that threshold the divisions would begin, with journalists and commentators talking about how we can’t have productive conversations about gun control because people on both sides of that issue have very strong feelings.

Remembering Mary, it was incredibly ironic to hear them talking about the strong feelings that would prevent us from figuring out how to stop killings like this – while still in the midst of an unfolding tragedy that was generating strong feelings right at that moment.  It was as if we wanted to trade in the unsettled, chaotic, unformed, still raw strong feelings of Friday for the strong feelings we know how to deal with:  I’m with the NRA or We need more gun control.

What did we think we would lose if we waited?  How differently might we have taken in what was happening if we had chosen to ponder instead of talk, talk, talk?

We need serious, straightforward, honest, non-political talk about violence in our communities.  But what we needed on Friday was fewer words, more silence.  Less pronouncing, more pondering.  We needed time to be with the pain and the prayers without having to know the way forward right then.  We needed to sit with the grieving and to feel the grief in our own hearts and to see where that would lead – rather than cutting off that process with a tumble of words meant to stave off our own fear.  We needed time to ponder.

I think we still do.

Just as Mary sang then, so God does now: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79).

There are no words that will make what happened Friday make sense.  Don’t think it made sense to Mary either, when she was at Golgotha and pulled those treasured words back out, the ones from the night of Jesus’ birth, looking for sense and meaning in the midst of her deepest grief.  Those must have been hard promises to continue believing in at that moment.

Days like Friday present us with the inescapable fact that God’s kingdom has not yet finished coming.  In the midst of Christmas light splendor we are so often still walking in darkness.  Days like Friday make that impossible to ignore.  This is the kind of world Christ was born into, our vulnerable savior.

In the rest of the time we have this Advent, let Mary be your guide.  As you remember and mourn with the families of Connecticut, try pondering.  Try listening and waiting to see and hear what will be revealed with time.  Because one thing is certain:  God can bring healing and redemption even out of a mess like this, but you have to pay attention to witness it.

Thanks be to God!



© 2012 Deborah E. Lewis



Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
Sign Up for Our Weekly Email