Every year around this time, I head to the garage and pull out the red Rubbermaid container packed with our Christmas ornament collection. I crack open the box with the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. I breathe in the scent of the Maine balsam fir pillow tucked at the bottom and smile. I know precious memories await me, as I weed through the packing peanuts safely protecting my nostalgia.
I love the mystery that surrounds what I will pull out first. This year, my hands grabbed the handprint Christmas wreath I made with my now four-year-old son on his very first Christmas, and I remembered all the first moments of motherhood. As I unpacked the layers, I rediscovered the silver soldier I bought the first year my brother deployed to Afghanistan, the tacky glittered kitty my five year old hands cut out in kindergarten, the tin shaped country of Haiti given to us by dear friends serving there, and a snow globe from our recent exploration to Yosemite National Park. With each ornament placed on our tree, I pondered the people and experiences attached to each small trinket.
Centuries ago, another woman within the story of Scripture also pondered and reflected on experiences that shaped her life. The book of Luke tells us, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Great mystery surrounds the small phrase, “these things,” and often leaves us wondering, “What exactly did she ponder?” Luke records six significant moments in Mary’s life within the first two chapters of his book, and this phrase likely refers to those moments.
Meeting Gabriel (Luke 1:26–38)
Imagine quietly washing the morning breakfast dishes or plugging along at dinner prep mid-afternoon, when from behind you hear a male voice say, “Greetings, o favored one, the Lord is with you” (1:28). Startled, not only by the strange man in her home, but also being called “favored,” Mary froze. Visibly shaken, Gabriel offered two commands: don’t be afraid and listen (1:30–31), and delivered the life-altering news that Mary had been selected to bring forth Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. The prophesied virgin that would bear Immanuel would be her (Is 7:14)!
Confused and likely still a tad shocked, Mary asks the obvious, “How?” (Lk 1:34). Luke describes her as a “virgin, betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph” (1:27), and she has honored both titles. Her betrothal to Joseph was legal and binding, despite them not having consummated the marriage. This pregnancy would have catastrophic consequences for herself and her family, if Joseph found her testimony to be fiction. Thankfully, he had his own angelic encounter to confirm Gabriel’s news (Matt 1:18–25).
What was it like to go back to the dishes and dinner prep after such a revelation?
Visiting Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56):
Before Gabriel departed, he offered Mary one final sign of assurance about the pregnancy to come. Her barren relative Elizabeth had also conceived a son (1:36). Two women. Two impossible circumstances. Two miracle babies. If anyone would believe and understand all that had transpired, Elizabeth would. Mary “left with haste” to see her (1:39).
Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, and at the mere sound of her voice, growing baby John the Baptist leapt within Elizabeth’s womb. Startled herself at her son’s gymnastics in her belly, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (1:42–43). Elizabeth’s blessing and acknowledgment of the miracle growing in her womb provided any final confirmation Mary might have needed.
What was it like to have a matriarch of your family call you blessed?
Journey to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–5)
Months pass and Caesar Augustus demands a census. In fulfillment of another prophecy that Israel’s Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), Joseph and Mary depart. The journey to Bethlehem, roughly ninety miles, would have taken the couple three to five days to complete. Images paint Mary happily sitting on a donkey, yet we have no assurance Joseph had a donkey. And, even if he did, can you imagine the discomfort of a third trimester pregnant belly bouncing down a dirt road, waddling along for breaks from the braying donkey?
We know Mary to be a woman bestowed special favor from God (Lk 1:28), and a woman of deep belief in the faithfulness, power, holiness and mercy of Yahweh (1:46–50). She does not waver in her understanding of Yahweh’s promises to his people, Israel (1:51–55). But, did she ever doubt if she could physically make the journey being with child? Did she fear the uncertainty of where she might deliver him or how she would do it without her female community? Did she fear, as most expectant mothers do, if something might go wrong in the delivery?
Giving Birth to the Messiah (Luke 2:6–7):
Their arrival in Bethlehem, a town laden with others coming for the census, met them only with one “No Vacancy” sign after another. Whether born in a stable or cave, Christ’s birth story would have twenty-first century hospitals facing a lawsuit. Manure. Itchy hay. Noisy animals. A cold and dirty floor.
Scripture remains silent on whether Mary’s birth experience lasted minutes, hours or days. Scripture remains silent on whether Joseph stayed by her side or if she delivered the Christ child on her own. We do not know who cut the umbilical cord or cleaned the blood and meconium from his little face. All we glimpse is Mary taking her infant son, wrapping him in strips of cloth and placing him in a cattle feeding trough for a cradle (2:7).
Entertaining Visitors (Luke 2:16–19):
Any woman who has just given birth will likely tell you that entertaining visitors is not top on her priority list. Between the exhaustion of childbirth and providing sustenance for a tiny human, playing hostess is not ideal. Mary, nevertheless, received the first visitors, for after all, the babe in her arms was their Messiah as well. How could she deny them?
Awe washed over their faces as they knelt to ooh and aah, not merely at his cuteness, but all this infant’s arrival meant, and that they had been chosen to proclaim the truth of his coming (2:18, 20).
Christmas often evokes our desire for the perfect Norman Rockwall family Christmas, and ends up looking a bit more like the Griswald family Christmas instead. We hope for just one day in the year when family feuds cease and long-time prayers are miraculously answered. We long for peace and goodwill toward all men.
The story of Christ’s birth, however, is not one of peace and calm, but rather the story of first-time parents in search of shelter before the arrival of their son. The story of impossible things being made possible through difficult moments.
At the end of this nine-month period in Mary’s life, Luke tells us, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). Mary pondered these moments, not as moments of fear, agony, regret or hardship. No, Mary defined them as treasures. Priceless and precious moments. Unexpected, magnificent, arduous and inspiring moments. Mary responds to each of these moments with total submission to Yahweh’s plan and her role in his story (1:38).
Pause for a moment this Christmas season and identify your own unexpected, magnificent, arduous and inspiring moments. Ponder them. Treasure them. And as you wait for peace to come to your troubled moments rest in Gabriel's declaration to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).