But Mary Pondered

A Second Christmas Meditation

Luke 2: 15 20

Introduction

This is one of the Gospel readings for Christmas Day each year. Obviously, it follows immediately on from the birth of Jesus as recorded in verses 1 — 14. It is a short passage but immensely rich.

Verse 15

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,

"Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about."

The Greek original actually says, "the shepherds repeatedly said to one another" suggesting how much they were of one mind. And what were they of "one mind" about? Going together to Bethlehem to see for themselves what one of the angels had described to them. Their words were "Let us then go over to Bethlehem". The word "then" (or KJV "now") is usually not translated in modern versions but indicates the urgency with which the shepherds were wanting to respond to the angel.

We note that, strictly speaking, the angel did not command the shepherds to go to Bethlehem. They took it upon themselves to respond wholeheartly to the angel's invitation.

Verse 16

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger.

The words "and found" (kai aneuron) come from the Greek verb to "find out" implying that they had to search.

We note, too, from Ronald Cox:

"The gospel (good news) is made known to these true Israelites living the simple life of the patriarchs of old; they are the authentic representatives of Israel, not the royal house of Herod, or the high priest, or the learned scribes and Pharisees".

Verses 17 and 18

When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Christians marvel that these simple uneducated shepherds were the first people to receive the great news of the birth of Jesus. Perhaps even more marvellous is the truth that they were also the first to proclaim it to others. It is commonly held that they were looking after sheep intended for the sacrifices at the Temple, awaiting their call to come into the city. It is very possible, therefore, that their witness was the chanel by which people such as Simeon and Anna (verses 25 — 40) were prepared in advance for their special role.

Verse 19

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

The sentence commences "But Mary" (he de Mariam, in the Greek) in contrast with "all who heard" (pantes hoi akousanter, in the Greek) in verse 18. Sadler (1886) picks up on this and writes:

It seems as if the sacred writer desired to mark a great contrast here. The multitude of hearers wondered at the time, and soon forgot all about it, but Mary kept all these words, "pondering" them — casting them over and over in her heart. The reader will notice how this whole narrative of St. Luke's puts St. Mary into the foreground as a humble, contemplative, observant Saint of God.

Our word "ponder" comes via Latin "ponderare". Spiritual writers point out that it is not so much a "weighing up" as allowing matters not fully understood to reside in one's depths where they can be treasured and quietly reflected on as is appropriate. When a boat or ship was entering shallow water, a "pondus" or weight on a line was used to get an idea of how close the bottom of the sea was. We have a saying, "to get to the bottom of it", meaning to probe and be able to see what currently is not obvious.

Mary has, since the earliest of times, been held by Christians as the one who pondered, who was prepared to obey God without full knowledge or understanding, yet would quietly reflect and grow in understanding as God permitted. She is therefore seen as a model of prayer.

Most commentators from all major denominations hold that the information obtained in Luke 1 and 2 was obtained from Mary.

Verse 20

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Sadler adds a helpful perspective:

They had only seen a newborn Infant in circumstances of deep poverty; but that sight corresponded with what they had heard from the angel. They had heard probably other things from the Virgin and St. Joseph, particularly how the angel of the Lord had appeared to both of them; and for these things, as certifying that the long-expected Redeemer of Israel had come, they returned "glorifying and praising God."

Conclusion

We close with two quotations.

First, a word from Adam Clarke which, while addressed particularly to pastors of the Church, is good advice for us all:

These simple men, having satisfactory evidence of the truth of the good tidings, and feeling a Divine influence upon their own minds, returned to the care of their flocks, glorifying God for what he had shown them, and for the blessedness which they felt. "Jesus Christ, born of a woman, laid in a stable, proclaimed and ministered to by the heavenly host, should be a subject of frequent contemplation to the pastors of his Church.

After having compared the predictions of the prophets with the facts stated in the evangelic history, their own souls being hereby confirmed in these sacred truths, they will return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard in the Gospel history, just as it had been told to them in the writings of the prophets; and, preaching these mysteries with the fullest conviction of their truth, they become instruments in the hands of God of begetting the same faith in their hearers; and thus the glory of God and the happiness of his people are both promoted." What subjects for contemplation! — what matter for praise!

Earlier still, Bishop Hooper had given good advice for those who would take it in:

"Read the second chapter of St. Luke, and there ye shall see how the shepherds that watched their sheep all night, as soon as they heard that Christ was born at Bethlehem, by and by must go to see Him. They did not reason nor debate with themselves who should keep the wolf from the sheep in the mean time, but did as they were commanded, and committed their sheep to Him whose pleasure they obeyed. So let us do, now we be called: let us commit all other things unto Him that called us. He will take heed that all things shall be well. He will help the husband; He will comfort the wife. He will guide the servants; He will keep the house; He will preserve the goods; yea, rather than it should be undone, He will wash the dishes, and rock the cradle. Cast, therefore, all your care upon God." — Hooper's Works. Parker Edit. vol. ii. 617.

May Christmas help you live life to the full.

We read, in these verses, how the birth of the Lord Jesus was first announced to the children of men. The birth of a King's son is generally made an occasion of public revelling and rejoicing. The announcement of the birth of the Prince of Peace was made privately, at midnight, and without anything of worldly pomp and ostentation.

Let us mark who they were to whom the tidings first came that Christ was born. They were "shepherds abiding in the field near Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night." To shepherds — not to priests and rulers, — to shepherds — not to Scribes and Pharisees, an angel appeared, proclaiming, "unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

The saying of St. James should come into our mind, as we read these words: "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which He hath promised to them that love Him?" (James 2: 5.) The want of money debars no one from spiritual privileges. The things of God's kingdom are often hid from the great and noble, and revealed to the poor. The busy labour of the hands need not prevent a man being favoured with special communion with God. Moses was keeping sheep, — Gideon was threshing wheat, — Elisha was ploughing, when they were severally honoured by direct calls and revelations from God. Let us resist the suggestion of Satan, that religion is not for the working man. The weak of the world are often called before the mighty. The last are often first, and the first last.

Let us mark, secondly, the language used by the angel in announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds. He said, "I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

We need not wonder at these words. The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth….…..was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind.

The head of Satan was about to be bruised. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ's sake, justify the ungodly. Salvation was no longer to be seen through types and figures, but openly, and face to face. The knowledge of God was no longer to be confined to the Jews, but to be offered to the whole Gentile world. The days of heathenism were numbered. The first stone of God's kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not "good tidings," there never were tidings that deserved the name.

Let us mark, thirdly, who they were that first praised God, when Christ was born. They were angels, and not men, — angels who had never sinned, and required no Saviour, — angels who had not fallen, and needed no redeemer, and no atoning blood. The first hymn to the honour of "God manifest in the flesh" was sung by "a multitude of the heavenly host."

Let us note this fact. It is full of deep spiritual lessons. It shows us what good servants the angels are. All that their heavenly Master does pleases and interests them. — It shows us what clear knowledge they have. They know what misery sin has brought into creation. They know the blessedness of heaven, and the privilege of an open door into it. — Above all, it shows us the deep love and compassion which the angels feel towards poor lost man. They rejoice in the glorious prospect of many souls being saved, and many brands plucked from the burning.

Let us strive to be more like-minded with the angels. Our spiritual ignorance and deadness appear most painfully in our inability to enter into the joy which we see them here expressing. Surely if we hope to dwell with them forever in heaven, we ought to share something of their feelings while we are here upon earth. Let us seek a more deep sense of the sinfulness and misery of sin, and then we shall have a more deep sense of thankfulness for redemption.

Let us mark, fourthly, the hymn of praise which the heavenly host sung in the hearing of the shepherds. They said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

These famous words are variously interpreted. Man is by nature so dull in spiritual things, that it seems as if he cannot understand a sentence of heavenly language when he hears it. Yet a meaning may be drawn from the words which is free from any objection, and is not only good sense, but excellent theology.

"Glory to God in the highest!" the song begins. Now is come the highest degree of glory to God, by the appearing of His Son Jesus Christ in the world. He by His life and death on the cross will glorify God's attributes, — justice, holiness, mercy, and wisdom, — as they never were glorified before. Creation glorified God, but not so much as redemption.

"Peace on earth!" the song goes on. Now is come to earth the peace of God which passeth all understanding, — the perfect peace between a holy God and sinful man which Christ was to purchase with His own blood, — the peace which is offered freely to all mankind — the peace which, once admitted into the heart, makes men live at peace one with another, and will one day overspread the whole world.

"Good will towards men!" the song concludes. Now is come the time when God's kindness and good will towards guilty man is to be fully made known. His power was seen in creation. His justice was seen in the flood. But His mercy remained to be fully revealed by the appearing and atonement of Jesus Christ.

Such was the purport of the angels' song. Happy are they that can enter into its meaning, and with their hearts subscribe to its contents. The man who hopes to dwell in heaven should have some experimental acquaintance with the language of its inhabitants.

Let us mark, ere we leave the passage, the prompt obedience to the heavenly vision displayed by the shepherds. We see in them no doubts, or questionings, or hesitation. Strange and improbable as the tidings might seem, they at once act upon them. They went to Bethlehem in haste. They found every thing exactly as it had been told them. Their simple faith received a rich reward. They had the mighty privilege of being the first of all mankind, after Mary and Joseph, who saw with believing eyes the newborn Messiah. They soon returned, "glorifying and praising God" for what they had seen.

May our spirit be like theirs! May we ever believe implicitly, act promptly, and wait for nothing when the path of duty is clear! So doing, we shall have a reward like that of the shepherds. The journey that is begun in faith will generally end in praise.

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