As we think about Christmas this season, I would like to reflect on a very curious feature of the gospel accounts: two aspects of Jesus’ story that need to be reconciled.
On the one hand, the birth of Jesus is accompanied by a dramatic fanfare of angels singing, ordinary people prophesying, and wise men traveling from the other side of the world of that day to do homage to him. And the prophecies spoken were straightforward, explicit, and utterly clear as to the identity and significance of this little child who was about to be born. On the other hand, when Jesus begins his public ministry–some time in his late twenties or early thirties–he emerges from relative obscurity to present himself to a skeptical nation that didn’t seem to have the slightest idea who he was and what he had come to do. Through the events surrounding his birth into this world, God made the identity of this person very public and very clear. How then can this same public, thirty years later, be so utterly without a clue as to who this person is?
Perhaps, we might say, the events surrounding his birth were not all that public. Perhaps only Mary, Joseph, a few wise men, and a handful of shepherds knew what had occurred. But that is not how the gospel accounts tell the story. Accounts of these events spread throughout Judea at least, and perhaps well beyond Judea.
With regard to the strange events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist, the prophet who had come in the spirit and power of Elijah to be a forerunner to the King Jesus who was about to be born, Luke writes, “And fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. And all who heard them kept them in mind, saying, ‘What then will this child [i.e., John] turn out to be?’ For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.” [Luke 1:65-66]
Matthew tells us that when the magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, they began inquiring publicly to ascertain where the newborn king was to be found. Their arrival and search for this newborn king troubled the entire city. Matthew tells us: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East, and have come to worship Him.’ And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” [Matthew 2:1-3]
And although Matthew does not tell us explicitly, can we believe that the slaughter of numbers of innocent toddlers in Bethlehem by the insanely enraged Herod went without notice? Wouldn’t it have been broadcast far and wide that Herod had done this in order to eliminate the child whom the magi had said was born to be King of the Jews?
And what about the shepherds who heard the angels sing? Those ordinary men whose ordinary lives had been so rudely interrupted by one of the most dramatic scenes in history, were they silent about what they had seen? Luke tells us explicitly, “And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.” [Luke 2:17-18]
There can be little question, I think, that the events surrounding Christmas nearly two thousand years ago made the whole of Judea aware of the birth of a child who was born to be the promised King of the seed of David, the promised Messiah himself, the one for whom people had been waiting for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why, then, were these same people so uncertain when–thirty years later–this child began proclaiming himself to be that promised Son of God? Prophecies had proclaimed it; angels had announced it and rejoiced over it; even the stars had confirmed it. Why, then, were the people who had witnessed the events of Christmas so reluctant to accept the message of those events?
Part of the answer, I am sure, rests in the huge discrepancy between these people’s expectations and the realities of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus did not come looking like the Messiah of their expectations. Very understandably, they would be confused and doubtful in the face of the huge adjustment in their concept of the Messiah which Jesus’ life was requiring of them.
But another factor is of equal importance: It is one thing to believe that Jesus is the Messiah on the force of a dramatic event; it is quite another thing to believe that Jesus is the Messiah on the force of the significance of what that means. It is one thing to believe that Jesus is the promised King because a whole chorus of angels is singing his praises from the heavens in a dramatic display of divine power. It is another thing to believe that Jesus is the promised King when life’s circumstances are closing in on you, when you have lived for years with no solutions to your most urgent problems, when the angels are conspicuously silent, when God seems so far away, so preoccupied, and so deaf, and when no signs in the heavens are telling you anything at all. My point is this: it is only human to spread rumors about strange and remarkable happenings, to wonder what it all means, to speculate, to be fascinated with it all, and to believe that something very important is happening. But it is superhuman to believe what God has said through his prophets and angels and creation, when nothing dramatic is occurring, when each ordinary day turns into one more ordinary day, and every day’s problems seem just as insurmountable as the last.
Most of the people of Judea who had listened to the reports of the shepherds and had seen the wise men ride into town looking for the newborn King were fascinated by the extraordinary drama of those events; they were a little bit frightened, a little bit excited, and they were very willing to believe that something very important was taking place in their days. But as the thrill and excitement of those dramatic events became muted over time, most of them found that their willingness to believe the importance of those events diminished as well. In time, Christmas day became a rather strange and bizarre moment tucked away in the dusty attics of their memories. It had no ongoing importance or significance to them. It was something that happened, something to interrupt the excruciating ordinariness of their days, but not something to think about any further. It was history, done and gone. One had to get on with one’s life.
But at least one person in the gospel accounts took a different attitude–a supernatural attitude–toward the events of Christmas. That person was Mary. On two separate occasions, Luke tells us that, with respect to the events which transpired and the prophetic messages which were offered, she “…treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” [Luke 2:19, and again in Luke 2:51] Luke is saying this: unlike the vast majority of other Judeans in Mary’s day, Mary made a personal, existential decision to burn into her memory the events she had seen and the words of prophecy she had heard spoken by angels and ordinary people; for she recognized how eternally significant these words and events were, and she did not want to forget them nor lose sight of their significance and their meaning. Mary was not merely struck by the extraordinary events surrounding Christmas; she was not merely dazzled by their drama; she was profoundly and permanently impressed with the true and eternal significance of those events, and she responded accordingly. She burned every word and every happening into her memory and kept the question ever alive in the background of her awareness: “What exactly does all this mean? What is it going to look like when my child will become the promised Messiah and King?” In other words, she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
Mary may well be unique in her generation. When Jesus began to show and to proclaim himself the Son of God, Mary may have been the only one still alive who had believed it of him all along, who had been believing it of him for thirty years. All the others who had believed thirty years earlier may well have seen their belief dissolve and disappear. And, if they were to return to believing at all, they would have to be convinced all over again through the words and signs Jesus would give them. But not Mary. All indications suggest that she had believed all along, having burned the messages of the angels, of the stars, of Elizabeth, of Simeon, and of Anna vividly and permanently into her memory; for from the very beginning, she fully understood and believed that what was happening to her was of eternal significance and of unsurpassable importance.
Herein lies part of the lesson of Christmas for us today. Our Christmas celebrations are a time when we use all the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures we can muster to make the joy of the Christmas events as tangible and as dramatic as we can. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. The more joy we can produce, the more appropriate it is. But we must never forget the lesson of that first Christmas: if we believe in the importance of Christmas because we are confronted by the drama of its events, then we have not necessarily believed in its importance at all; but if we believe in the importance of Christmas because we have come to believe deeply and profoundly within our own hearts that what is transpiring at Christmas is the most important thing the world will ever know, then truly have we come to believe in the importance of Christmas.
The compelling drama of Christmas will always fade seamlessly into the mundane drudgery of human existence. This is true whether we are talking about the holiday season or the drama of our own conversion, our own personal “Christmas” when we dramatically encounter the King being newborn in our hearts. The compelling drama and mystery and joy of the Christmas season always fades quickly into the gray skies and depressingly futile realities of human existence in January. And the compelling drama of our own personal “Christmas”–when we have been compelled to confess Jesus as the Son of God at our own rebirth–fades inevitably into the agony, suffering, weariness, and drudgery of our sanctification in and through very ordinary human existence. Our response to Christmas does not test the reality of our belief; rather, our response to the not so dramatic events that always follow Christmas tests it. You believe in the Messiah at Christmas? Good; you and millions of other people throughout the world who are touched by its compelling sights and sounds. But if you still believe in the Messiah in June, that will be something remarkable.
Who will believe in the importance of Christmas through all the Junes as well as the Decembers of their lives? It is people who follow the example of our sister Mary; people who make a life-changing decision to “treasure up all these things and ponder them in their hearts.”
We must determine, as Mary did, never to forget the events that have established for us the truth of what God is doing in the world. We must determine, as Mary did, to wait patiently and unflaggingly for the completion of the work God has already begun. We must believe, as Mary did, with a life-transforming, existential commitment, that the work of God begun at Christmas (and begun in me at my rebirth) is the most important reality in the whole of human existence. We must determine, as Mary did, to keep constantly before us the question, “What will these things look like when God has finally completed what He has promised?” And, like Mary, we must never allow the long, drawn-out stretches of our lives, which seem to drag endlessly into meaningless oblivion, ever to exhaust the supply of faith from which we believe that, in the end, the joy of Christmas will bring permanent meaning and eternal joy to the entirety of my existence.
These things we must do if we are to follow Mary’s example of supernatural faith. We must “treasure up” all the things of Christmas and “ponder them in our hearts.” If we do not–if we cannot–muster the interest to “ponder these things” in our hearts, then we show ourselves to be just ordinary children of the devil: intrigued, energized, fascinated, delighted, and thrilled by the drama of Christmas, but completely incapable of grasping its true meaning.