17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 1:17-20)
Writing a Christmas sermon is not easy. Everyone knows the story. They have heard it all before, or at least enough of it to have said, Yep, I know what its all about. It’s a story about a baby, some shepherds and their reindeers, a funny old fellow called Santa Claws, presents and a star. I know its got something to do with chimneys, kissing under the mistletoe, three wise women from the east and a docile donkey, no midwife and only a cows’ feed trough for a bed. It’s about Christmas specials, turkeys and prawns, snow and beach cricket, a big lunch and an afternoon siesta, a boat race to Tasmania and beating the Indians at the MCG. Yep, that’s what Christmas is all about.
Really? You sure?
Christmas is also about boat people looking for a better life, refugees on Christmas Island (appropriately named), people mourning a loved one, no money to feed empty tummies, needless wars in far off lands, too much alcohol, car accidents, politicians and their platitudes, and more.
Really? Is that all?
Well no, that’s not all.
Christmas is about hope, gift, presence, love, mystery in the midst of the ordinariness of life. When, as a child, I asked my father what he wanted for Christmas he would say, “A jam tin with a hole in the bottom.” A funny thing to say. A jam tin with both ends cut out is kind of useless really. You can’t put anything in it, you can’t cover anything up with it, it is useless.
Or was he saying something else about the essence of Christmas – was he saying that it is much more than a tangible item, it is a gift that is too big to grasp and contain, to hold and to keep for yourself. It is more than something you can lock down and put a lid on. The essence of Christmas is beyond definition, beyond theological or philosophical argument, it is the presence of the Spirit in the midst of life.
The shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks – sitting around a campfire as the sheep sat around them, their night – time stillness was disturbed by a mysterious vision of angels announcing the birth of the Messiah. Now that was disturbing, for no one ever told shepherds anything – they were so much the outcasts that people barely spoke to them. Yet it is to them that the birth of the Messiah is announced. And not an announcement about a king born in a fancy palace, but a baby born in the shed put aside for the farm animals at the back of a house of lodgings – called a pub – in a non-descript country village far from the halls of power and authority.
This so intrigued the shepherds that they went down to have a look. Interestingly no-one stayed behind to watch the sheep. Why? Well, because of the racket caused by the angels, I suggest the sheep had scattered far and wide and they would have to go looking the next day to round them up. Can’t do that of a night.
So down they go and find it all as the angels had told them, and they are amazed and rush off back to share their story with anyone and everyone who would listen. They were excited.
Now, the key player in all this, Mary, responds differently. She has just given birth to a healthy baby boy, a boy she has been previously informed is the saviour of the world. I am sure she was happy, happy to have given birth in circumstances that were primitive, even for the time, and survived the ordeal and happy for the special honour this particular birth was. Yet she and Joseph don’t seem to be cracking open the champagne and passing out the cigars. They seem to be quietly watching this extraordinary event unfold around them, the birth, the gathering of the shepherds and their encounter with the angels, the visit from the locals, the strange star overhead, and the back story which preceded this event.
Luke captures their mood when he says:” 19But Mary treasured all these words (and experiences) and pondered them in her heart.”
For Mary and Joseph this event was so mysterious, so indescribable, so awe-inspiring that it was beyond their understanding at that very moment. Neither understood what this all meant, no could they, but they simply didn’t dismiss it all as some sort of myth or hallucination, but pondered, reflected, contemplated it all, allowing the Spirit of God to reveal it, as and when appropriate.
On this, the night before Christmas, let us take into our hearts the story of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, the one with us in this world and reflect upon it’s innocence, it’s love, it’s depth and it’s call to us, who once were outcasts, to open our lives and share it with all, regardless of who they are. Let us reflect on the gift God gives us and remember that all gifts, given and received this Christmas, are only symbols of the gift of love found in Christ.
Let us reflect on the incarnation or coming amongst of Christ and be mindful of how we are amongst those we share this world with.
Let us reflect on the fragility of that small baby who relied so much on others for life and know how fragile our lives are and how much we rely on others for our daily existence.
The story of Christmas has become a little confused in the modern retelling, or should I say, reselling of it; yet the foundational story has not changed. It is about the gift of life and the power of that gift to unbalance our complacency and cause us to ‘ponder on all these words and experiences within our heart”.
The challenge, as we move to the Eucharist and the festivities of Christmas day, is to celebrate the gift or life and live mindful of that gift everyday. Like my father’s jam tin with the a hole in it, Christmas is a gift we can never contain and it will go on revealing itself to us for the rest of our life, if we ponder on it in our hearts.