Advent Week 4: Love
Luke 2.15-20, NRSV
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
For our family, Christmas officially kicks off with our annual Christmas Eve, Eve Bunce Family Gathering. These gatherings are no small matter in number, in affair, especially in noise. 30 people in one house can make for a boisterous evening – 30 voices carrying on conversation over dinner, mass present openings with the youngest children, two rather rowdy games of Dirty Santa, followed by Family stockings. We joke that this gathering is the ultimate test for significant others, if they stick around after a Bunce Family Christmas (or two), that is a hopeful sign. Please don’t misunderstand – I absolutely adore my family and would not want to kick off this full week of Christmas any other way.
There are a few noteable moments during the evening when we intentionally quiet ourselves, though these moments are short-lived. We always sing and ask the blessing before the meal; before opening presents someone from the family reads the Christmas story (the Jesus version, not the Ralphie version); and before we pass out stockings, Granddaddy shares a short meditation on the meaning of Christmas. These moments – like stockings and Dirty Santa – are tradition for us and are observed in a similar way year after year. Last year, my niece Fayrah read aloud the Christmas story from Luke 2 – the same one you just read – and sitting in the quiet room that had just moments before been ringing back with the sounds of our own laughter, I couldn’t help but notice Mary’s silence.
It’s actually quite easy to miss. At first it seems like a meaningless aside – just one verse tucked away at the end of this 20 verse section, but the tone of this one line is so different from the rest of the story it’s odd that we overlook it. Maybe it is our own attempts to tame the chaos of the Christmas story that make Mary’s silence go unnoticed. Our dignified nativity sets and our carols of silent night and away in a manger where all is calm and baby Jesus doesn’t cry give a more refined appearance to this story than it deserves. Luke suggests that this holy night is anything but silent. If we want to honor Luke’s story then we need nativity sets with shepherds in motion – with arms and faces that stretch out in excitement – shepherds who are not bowing but instead are running either to the stable to see the baby or away from it telling anyone who will listen what they have found – and we need a stable door that just won’t shut for the visiting crowds, some who bring with them their own crying babies and curious children. Luke’s story is not calm – it’s chaos. And it is in the midst of all this commotion that we find the young Mary who sits silently by her son – her body hunched forward in her chair exhausted from travel and labor and the demands of caring for a newborn – with heavy dark brown eyes that beg for sleep – but she doesn’t sleep. Instead, she sits silently taking it all in – each little twitch as he sleeps peacefully in his makeshift crib – each cry that begs for his mother’s warmth – each little half smile as she strokes his cheek – the smell of the room – the visitor’s remarks, their ooos and ahhhs and awwwws that issue like sweet blessings over her son – the wonder of other children as they gently hug or give him kisses. And Luke says, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Calvin Miller suggests, “We must look to Mary’s example to know how to deal with the glorious impossibilities of God.” In a season that is so full with its own chaos and commotion, I wonder if we wouldn’t all benefit from Mary’s example – to simply notice, to take in with intention the things happening around us – to understand, as Luke suggests, that silent attentiveness is as appropriate a response to the presence of God as the praising of Shepherds and the singing of Angels.
Amidst the chaos of life around her, Mary sits keenly aware of the holy presence of God in the room – a babe, her babe, wrapped in the vulnerable flesh of humanity, come to us a savior armed only with the innate love of a child. As we contemplate and then carry this story of Christmas forward into the New Year, let us remember that this is our calling too – to live with a keen awareness of God’s presence in the world.
If the incarnation means anything to us, it is that our God, who on this holy night took on hands and feet and tears and hunger and laughter and gratitude – was then and continues to be now Emmanuel – God who is with us. The incarnation means that God continues to be made new and made known to us in the ordinary – in the everyday – in the most unexpected places. The incarnation means that God is here now, present with us in the quiet and in the chaos. It is our calling to live with an awareness of that presence and like Mary to treasure it within ourselves.
Prayer: Incarnate God, we give thanks that you do not show up only in the places we deem to be holy or appropriate. Thank you for the ways your love spills over into the most ordinary places, onto the most unsuspecting people. Open our spirits and our hearts that we might live keenly aware of the moments when we are in those ordinary places – or are those unsuspecting people. Amen.
Action: There is so much about the world around us that we miss in our hurried days. Today, make a point of slowing down – of paying attention to the things around you. When you find yourself dismissing something as unimportant, pay particular attention to that thing. Look for something holy there that you may not have noticed at first.
Lin Story-Bunce is Associate Pastor at College Park Church in Greensboro, NC.
(Christmas Eve Reflection – December 24, 2014)