And Mary pondered these things in her heart.
Mary had a lot to ponder that night long ago. The child that had grown within her so miraculously and then been carried so precariously through the long journey to Bethlehem had finally been born. Instead of a quiet moment with her new baby in a safe and warm bed, she is surrounded by livestock and strangers.
The word translated as “pondered” literally means, “thrown together”. This pondering is not a quiet, meditative one, but a frantic scrambling to understand what is happening, to absorb all the new information and feelings Mary is experiencing.
Mary experienced affirmation that her baby was from God throughout her pregnancy. An angel spoke to her and then, thankfully, to her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth. Her husband Joseph believed her, but the news of this incredible incarnation was still quiet and contained to a few family members.
This holy secret ends when a flock of shepherds bursts into Mary’s makeshift birthing room, still illuminated from the vision they have seen, talking over each other to tell the story of the angels and how they had visited what felt like every barn in Bethlehem until finally they found this one, with the baby wrapped in strips of cloth.
At this moment, as she holds the baby a little closer to her chest, Mary realizes, this is not “her” baby, not entirely. In this moment of joy at his birth, there is also a little grief, as Mary realizes her child is a child she will have to share. Not just with these eager shepherds, but with all people.
Usually in painted icons of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary holds Jesus on her lap, close to her body. However, there is one icon in which Mary faces the onlooker and holds Jesus away from her body, towards whoever is looking at the icon.
This is the Mary who realizes her sacrifice will be to lose her son, not only to death, but also in life. This baby will grow up to create a new family of misfits and criminals. This baby will grow up to live a life of a wanderer, traveling from town to town. He will never settle down or provide her with grandchildren. In this icon, Mary not only accepts this reality, but offers Jesus to us.
This baby who was born, was born of Mary, but was born for the world. After all, we must remember that this tiny baby contains all of God. All the powers that created the universe, pushed the stars into their rotations, created green grass and human flesh out of dust.
One of our acolytes was helping to green the church last Sunday and observed that the baby Jesus in our nativity scene is about half the size of Mary. He looks at least six years old. I wonder if that was an intentional decision on the part of the artist. Perhaps the artist got carried away as she meditated on the huge implications of the incarnation, of God choosing to limit himself in human flesh. Maybe she thought no small baby could handle the enormity of God, so she made the baby a little bigger, to give God more room to wiggle around.
I wonder what it was like for God to suddenly also be completely human, to have his infiniteness constrained by skin, to suddenly have to turn his head to look behind him, to suffer the indignity of having to learn to walk? Was there a part of being a baby Jesus really loved? Did he love his own tiny fingers and toes the way we love the toes of our favorite babies?
From the very start, just by being born, God began to redeem what it is to be human. If Jesus can learn to walk, and read, and eat, then walking and reading and eating have the potential to be holy activities, not just human ones.
If God chooses to be born in a dingy stable in the midst of chaos, then God redeems all those who suffer the indignities of poverty and chaotic lives. God choose to came, not to a family that had it all together, but to an exhausted traveling couple who were just trying to find a dry place to lay their heads. Mary and Joseph did not have the time or resources to prepare for a “proper” arrival for their son, so he came in the most awkward and uncomfortable of situations.
Yes, Mary’s sweet baby was no ordinary child.
God came to earth as the Christ so we could know him in a deeper and more intimate way. He came embodied, in actual human flesh, not some divine ephemeral cloud. He could taste and touch and feel. He could get headaches and feel hunger pangs. He came to face all our temptations and sorrows. He came to know what it is to love and lose. He came not only to save us from our sins, but to redeem the very lives we live.
Know that whether you sorrow or feel deep joy at this moment, that Christ has compassion for you, knows what those emotions feel like, and loves you. He offers you hope for redemption and continued joy. . .not just in the next life, but in this life. There is no experience you can have that is outside the scope of Christ’s forgiveness, nothing you can do that, if repented, will prevent Christ’s embrace.
I’ll close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle about Christ’ birth from Mary’s perspective.
O ORIENS, by Madeleine L’Engle
O come, O come Emmanuel
Within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
Give me thy strength: it is the hour.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high;
Like any babe at life you cry;
For me, like any mother, birth
Was hard, O light of earth.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Whose birth came hastily at night,
Born in a stable, in blood and pain
Is this the king who comes to reign?
O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
The stars will be thy diadem.
How can the infinite finite be?
Why choose, child, to be born of me?
O come, thou key of David, come,
Open the door to my heart-home.
I cannot love thee as a king-
So fragile and so small a thing.
O come, thou Day-spring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings
I saw the shepherds and the kings.
O come, Desire of nations, be
Simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.
The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell.