Mary held these words close, and pondered them in her heart. Everyone else was astonished when the shepherds showed up and shared what just happened to them and shared this message they got from a heavenly messenger about the meaning of this little newborn there in the feeding trough. Everyone who heard what they said was astonished – you get the sense that these shepherds were running around telling everyone the wild experience they just had, something holy had happened, there is born a gift from God, a child anointed, blessed, destined for the task of leading humankind to be restored in our relationship with God, our Creator, the Source and Destination of all and everything. This is an astonishing thing to say. And everyone who heard it was astonished. Except Mary. She instead took these words and held them close, kept them safe within her, pondering them in her heart. Not astonishment, but a mature weighing of the import. You get the sense of this great maternal wisdom at work here. Here is Mary, exhausted and in pain from childbirth, and full of joy and full of love for her newborn child. She receives this incredible news that her child has a special sacred task. But she doesn’t get worked up about it. Instead she turns inward and contemplates the meaning of it all. And, you see, Mary had gotten this message earlier. The shepherds were just confirming for her what she already knew. Nine months earlier, an angelic messenger had conveyed to her that she will have a child who will be holy – son of the Most High – he will be like a king. Emmanuel, God with us. And from the start Mary was not naive about what this all could mean. Shortly after she became pregnant with this Christ child, Mary sang out her famous prayer to God: Mary’s Magnificat: Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord – the True Sovereign of Heaven and Earth, And my spirit rejoices in God who saved me, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of servants. … God’s name alone is holy. Mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with the arm. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors.” The powerful torn from their thrones, the lowly lifted up … So much for Mary meek and mild. She knew – in a way that most everyone didn’t – that the promise in this Christ child – the incarnation of God’s love – is nothing less than a total upheaval. The question to ponder here with the Magnificat is: what kind King does this make Christ? If Jesus is anointed by this kind of Lord and Sovereign of Heaven and Earth, what kind of King is he? If Christ is our king, our Emmanuel, our God with us, what does that show us about how God is with us and with the rest of humanity here in this world? Because – spoiler alert – they didn’t make Jesus king. He didn’t become the next King Herod or Caesar Augustus or King David for that matter. Jesus, instead, was born in a feeding trough and he never mounted a throne – the love he bore for humanity drew him to all the kinds of places all the kinds of people you’re not supposed to love. Everything Jesus said was misunderstood and he was mocked and persecuted and then kicked into the trash heap. “The last shall be first. The first shall be last. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for right-relations with each other and with God. Heal the sick. Free people from the demons that haunt us. Share the Good News. Be as gentle as doves and and savvy as serpents. Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. What you do to the least among you, you do to me.” That’s what Jesus taught and lived. And teaching this and living out this full devotion all and only to the true God in which we all live and move and have our being, that got Jesus into a whole lot of trouble with the forked-tongued kings of the world. His was the kind of love that cuts through hypocrisy, cuts down all the excuses we make for the ways we abuse each other. Jesus suffered for it. And Mary bore witness to it all, from beginning to end … as well as to the new life that was unleashed after the end – at the resurrection. Mary bore witness all this, held it close and pondered it in her heart (and judging by her magnificat, Mary probably had a much bigger role in Jesus’ character than she gets credit for). So at Christmas we come to Jesus as a newborn baby – Holy Innocence itself, a vulnerable, fierce little life born in a very humble situation. And when Jesus grew and came into his own, Jesus took the light of God and brought it to all the people and all the places and all the parts of ourselves that are too often denied God. All the vulnerable, fierce little sparks of life hanging on in humble situations, that’s where he breathes new life. And that’s Good News. So let me leave you with a way to contemplate all this – to ponder in your hearts what this could mean for us now. This sacred time we’re sharing tonight on Christmas Eve culminates in a few minutes with us gathering in a circle with candles lit in the dark, as we sing “Silent night.” You may have noticed that many of you have candles that obviously have been used before – yours may even look a little worse for the wear. That’s because during the rest of the year our Christmas Eve candles have had some work to do. This is my third Christmas here, and in that time in Walla Walla we’ve had to have several candlelight vigils downtown. Unfortunately. We’ve had to all come together to grieve together because of some atrocity. Too many times. We’ve had to come together to show that we’re all in this together. Just this last Wednesday these candles, and many of you, were part of a vigil downtown to support the immigrants among us who are in a precarious way. It is these candles here at First Congregational church that get called on in times when people are looking for light, looking for hope, looking for strength, to help us all come together with our fierce little flames of life and know that God is with us all… That there is a power that is greater than anything humans can do to each other. Christ was born into it all and has been through it all and has revealed through it all that the Spirit of the Living God lives on – on and on through all times and places and beyond. And it is in holy moments, when all is dark and still, that we can know this and feel this together – hold it close and ponder it in our hearts. Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Christmas Eve 2017, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)