January 1, 2017
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Her heart. We glimpse Mary’s heart in our Bible passage today. A glimmer of her inner life, of what she thinks about, of what will flash through her thoughts over the years, the thirty-three years, as her child grows from infant in the manger to man on the cross.
It’s worth taking our time here, with this verse, with Mary and her heart, because this is a surprising moment in the ancient world—a world dominated by men, where men do all the writing and thinking. So it’s surprising for a piece of literature to tell us that women have thoughts. I know that sounds strange to say—so crazy to think back to a time when men didn’t think it worthwhile to consider the possibility that a woman could have thoughts, thoughts worth pondering, thoughts worth sharing. The ancient world, the Western tradition, is notorious for considering women as more bodily than brainy, more suited for earthly concerns than to have time for thinking, for knowledge, for contemplation and speculation—for theoria, as the ancient philosophers would call it.
Yet somehow here, in Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of the story, we are with Mary, wondering what she’s thinking about, pondering what’s occupying her thoughts, curious about her inner life, about the words that she’s treasuring. Her heart, her mind, holds treasures.
Here and there, during the history of the church, people have looked to Mary as a philosopher, as a sage, contemplating knowledge from the gods, her body as a home for divine wisdom, Sophia in Greek. In the twelfth century, in England, for example, Aelred of Rievaux preached a series of sermon on this passage, explaining Mary’s role as the first disciple to understand the meaning of Jesus and to explain his message to all the simple-minded disciples. “While the others did not comprehend Jesus,” Aelred preached, “Mary knew and understood, because she carried all that she had seen and heard in her heart, in her memory, ruminating over it in her contemplation.”[i]
Mary becomes a theologian, their teacher, our teacher.
She shows us what it means to think about God, and the surprising detail of this passage, when it comes to knowledge about God, about what God is doing, about God’s plan for the world—the surprise is that knowing God begins with surprise, with the surprise of unexpected guests, of shepherds from the hills. They offer the words that Mary ponders in her heart, the words that she treasures—that her newborn is the messiah, that the infant is the Lord.
To know her child, Mary listens to strangers—they offer the word of God. The latest revelation about her baby’s identity comes from a surprise visit from unexpected guests. In Matthew’s version of the story, magi, foreigners from the East, offer words for Mary to ponder—revelations about her child’s life, of who he is, of his destiny.
It strikes me this time around, this year with this passage, that hospitality holds the story together—that advent and Christmas return again and again to the theme of hospitality. The story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus hinges on the risk of hospitality, hospitality as an act of faith, of trust in strangers.
First there’s the angel Gabriel, sent from heaven to earth, to Nazareth, to visit Mary in her home. Then, second, there’s Mary who says yes to God, to open her body to God’s son. Third, there’s Joseph who takes Mary into his house, trusting the story of her miraculous pregnancy out of wedlock. Fourth, Elizabeth lets Mary stay with her for three months of her pregnancy. Fifth, the innkeeper who had already committed all her rooms to other migrants and refugees, but nonetheless provided Mary and Joseph with a warm place to rest during her labor. Sixth, the animals who shared their shelter with Jesus, the friendly beasts, as the Christmas hymn calls them. Seventh, as I mentioned earlier, Mary and Joseph welcoming shepherds and magi as unannounced guests. Eighth, the people of Egypt who received the holy family as refugees, seeking asylum from Herod’s death squads. And, lastly, ninth: the world, making a home for God, welcoming God in the flesh. (The fourth point about Elizabeth’s hospitality was made by Rebecca Rich during our sharing time after the sermon.)
If Mary is our theologian, our teacher, and if this story has something to tell us about God, then we can’t step around the truth that to know God involves a posture for our lives—that knowing God involves the risk of hospitality, the opening of our lives, of our homes, of our communities, of our world to foreigners from the east, to strangers from the hillsides, to guests who offer insights into God’s identity, visitors who invite us to see and hear God anew.
This has everything to do with our world right now, with the resurgence of xenophobia, with a deep-seated North American political fear of foreigners. If there’s no Christmas, no incarnation, no Emmanuel, without story after story of hospitality to strangers, we have to wonder what this means for a culture, a nation, that threatens to build more barriers between people groups. I think of what Jesus says, later in Luke’s Gospel, when he weeps and says, “If you, even you had only recognized the things that make for peace… but you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44).
Mary did recognize the visitation from God, as she cradled Jesus in her arms, this stranger from heaven, now at home in her world, in her life—and with all the guests coming over, offering further insights into the identity of this child, she wondered what would become of him. How does one raise the Messiah? Mary’s arms tremble as she thinks about the weight of the future that she holds. Will she know what to do?
The shepherds leave Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and return to the fields. And Mary sits in stunned silence—contemplating, meditating, imagining, waiting for the advent of an unknown world.
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” That’s what Christmas does to us as well. We’re left to wonder, because with this Christ now in the world nothing will be the same, and it may take us a lifetime of waiting to understand the meaning of any of this—the meaning of the savior of the world born in an ignored corner of the world, with lowly shepherds as the first enlightened ones, and a teenaged woman, stunned and bewildered at what will become of her life.
We live at the edge of revelation, pondering a world that becomes more and more strange to us. If Mary is a guide, then the only way to go on even as the world seems to shift beneath us, is to listen to every visitor along the way, every stranger, every foreigner, because this Bible story tells us that they bear revelations from God.
[i] Paraphrased from Mary Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, p. 153.