“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
A dear, dear friend called a few nights ago. The sound of her voice, marked by a hoarse raspiness, led me to say, “Beth, you sound like you have a terrible cold.” Almost swallowing her own words, she responded, “No, Fred, I’m a mess.” Knowing that she is a person who is always in control, I asked, “Beth, what’s wrong?” “I have breast cancer,” she responded.
This evening-Christmas Eve-is regularly marked by celebration. And here, in this glorious space-marked by vaulted ceilings and vast, sprawling marble floors-it is easy to be drawn into that celebration. Indeed, it may seem morbidly inappropriate on this night-of all nights-to do more than underline the glory of it all. But Christmas is a hopeful moment not because it is born of triumph but because it was born in the cold, dark, forbidding streets of Bethlehem-because it was born of the same frailty and fear that marks our lives.
The fixed figures of the crèche scene, the adoring shepherds, the devoted oriental potentates, the loving parents-all of them belie the greater ambiguity that marked the first Christmas. Perhaps that ambiguity helps to explain in part the evangelist’s note that Mary “pondered” these things in her heart. The Greek verbs behind the English literally mean “tossing them together in her heart.” We would say Mary was “trying to hit upon their right meaning.”
If Christmas possesses growing ambiguities for each of us as the years roll on and as an ever more complex mix of grief and joy accumulates, Mary is, perhaps, the best possible companion for us. Other gospel stories call her “blessed.” But her son lives a life marked by turmoil and rejection that ends (to all appearances) as miserably as it began. And the designation “favored” seems to fly in the face of every conventional definition we might give the term. She is not “lucky.” She is not the recipient of good fortune or great wealth. She is not even entrusted with a complete, insider’s guide to the events that envelope her life which can anchor or comfort her. She, like those around her, is forced to “toss them together in her heart”-to make sense of that which makes little or no complete sense. To be blessed or to be favored, then, consists in this and this alone-to hear the call of God and to respond. As one writer puts it, Mary’s reaction is part and parcel of the handmaid’s role.
God’s salvation is at hand. How is not always clear, the circumstances do not always allow us the abandon of shepherds or potentates. But we are blessed to have heard the word of God and to have been given the chance to respond.
The reckless abandonment of a simple faith-of naïveté one-may have escaped us. Loss and ambiguity may have rendered that route unserviceable. But naïveté 2-the ability to believe when all the ambiguities have been acknowledged-when certainty in God’s call persists in spite of uncertain circumstances-this kind of faith is not beyond us. It reassures us, bears us up and makes celebration marked by meaning possible.
If we are distressed by this transition, if we somehow feel that it amounts to a loss of innocence, a failure, the triumph of cynicism-perhaps it is worth remembering just how close to the point Mary’s response really is. For as Harvard psychologist William Perry observed, “Organisms organize and human organisms organize meaning.” It is not the changing shape of our celebration as we mature that signals loss. It is not the absence of mindless abandon that registers the presence of cynicism. Rather, it is the failure to seek meaningful celebration, it is the failure to “toss things together” that signals loss-loss of maturity-loss of authenticity and depth-even the loss of faith itself.
So on this night, when we revisit the familiar gospel story from a new perspective, shaped by a year’s experiences, older and unsure how much wiser we might be-may God grant Beth and each of us the grace to “toss things together in our hearts,” to celebrate the coming of the Christ child with meaning.