The angels left and went into heaven… the shepherds returned [to their sheep]…
This time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year, is often a time when people are going home from family visits, returning like those angels and shepherds, and picking up the threads of their lives again. My two children were with us for Christmas, but Michael went back to Southampton on the 27th and Ruth flew back to Lisbon on the 28th – from Stansted – she managed to pick the only airport seriously disrupted by the snow to fly out of! Fortunately, she got back safely with only a little delay. Even if you haven’t had visitors or been a visitor, though, there’s often a sense that things are getting back to normal after the Christmas break at this point. People are going back to work, groups and activities are starting again. However good a Christmas you’ve had, that can feel like a relief, especially if you put the tree up really early and now all the needles have fallen off. But there’s a danger that in our haste to clear Christmas away we may miss the chance to hear its message to us.
That’s why it matters that in the church at least, Christmas has only just begun. The Magi haven’t reached Bethlehem yet, and won’t do for another week, and then after that the Christmas season continues, with what you might call the “sub-season” of Epiphanytide, until Candlemas at the beginning of February. We’re a long way from being done with this story of the baby born in Bethlehem.
The reason why we cling on like this is that Christmas isn’t just a day. The work of bringing up a baby, as any parent can testify, doesn’t end with its birth – that’s just the beginning, and it’s what comes next that really matter. That’s just as true for Jesus as it is for anyone else. The person who seems to be most aware of this in today’s Gospel reading is Mary, of course - and maybe Joseph too, though he’s not mentioned here. They are the ones who will have to care for this child, who will have the sleepless nights and anxiety, as well as the joy and tenderness of holding him close. We are told that Mary “treasured” the words she had heard and “pondered them in her heart.” The Greek word translated as “pondered” is only used in this one place in the Bible. Its literal meaning is to bring together, or more accurately to throw together. It is sunballo if you’re interested.
I like that. It’s as if Mary is carrying a rag bag of emotions and experiences at this point, all the things that have been thrown at her, trying to make sense of them. There was the initial appearance of the angel, and his announcement to her that she would bear a child, with all the risks of scandal that involved. Then there was her emotional visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. Then there was the journey to Bethlehem at the diktat of a foreign emperor. Then there was nowhere for her and Joseph to stay. She’s had to lay her child down to sleep in a borrowed manger far away from home, and then these shepherds turn up in the middle of the night, with stories of more angels. She knew that something extraordinary was happening, that this child, according to the angel, was God’s son, the Messiah, the one who who would “cast down the mighty from their thrones”, which is something the mighty tend not to be too keen on, so she knew there would be trouble ahead. But what would the future hold? What was she supposed to do now with this child? How could she bring him up with the resilience and the courage he would need? How would she find that resilience and courage for herself? All these thoughts are jostling for her attention – thrown together in her mind as she holds her child to herself.
We don’t get that sense of the “thrown togetherness” of all of this in the English translation of that word sunballo – pondering gives a rather different feel to it, but it’s a good word too, a word worth thinking about. The word ponder is linked to ponderous, of course; it’s about things that are weighty. We get “pound” from the same root. Mary is weighing up all these things that have been thrown at her. They lie heavy in her thoughts. They can’t be cast off like the scrumpled up wrapping paper and Christmas packaging that litters the living room carpet by Boxing Day. They can’t be ignored, they won’t just blow away in the breeze. These are thoughts she will carry around with her all the time. She’ll sometimes struggle to bear them as her child grows and begins to live out his ministry.
Mary ponders in the days after Jesus is born, and if we want Christmas to be more than a couple of weeks of eating, drinking and singing carols, more than a mushy moment in the candlelight, we need to ponder the thoughts, feelings and questions it has provoked in us too. We need to allow those thoughts and feelings and questions to have their proper weight, to have substance and reality in our lives. Where has Christ been born in us this Christmas? Maybe it has happened in a some small impulse we have felt to set something right, to do something new, to let our lives be changed. What will we do to turn those impulses into reality? Where has light shone in the darkness for us, and what is that light showing us about ourselves and our world? What will we do to help that light shine out? The angel told Mary to call her child Jesus – in Hebrew it would be Yeshua, the same name we anglicise as Joshua, that famous Old Testament warrior. It means “God saves”, but how has Christ come as a saviour to us this Christmas. What do we need saving from right now? What do we need saving for? Where do we need God’s help, and how shall we reach out to find it? The Christ child, God’s word and God’s work, lies in the manger of our hearts – what are we going to do to help him grow up and grow strong?
It is easy for Christmas to feel like a bit of a dream, a time out of time, but the questions it asks us are real questions about our real lives, about our relationships, our priorities, our callings. They demand and deserve real answers. Holding onto Christmas isn’t just about keeping the crib up and not packing away the tinsel too soon. It is about finding and nurturing that life which God is trying to bring to birth in us, respecting it, taking it seriously, so that it can grow to fill us, transform us and save us. How shall we do that? That is what we are called to ponder today.