"When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them." (Luke 2:15-20 ESV)
One of the things that has struck me as I've reflected on Jesus's birth this year has been the precarity of the entire situation. In the light of Jesus's eventual triumph over death and darkness, it is easy to retrospectively romanticise his birth. In truth, I wonder how hopeful Joseph and Mary would have felt in the squalor of their manger, away from home while participating in an imperial registration exercise. I wonder whether the knowledge that she would give birth to the Son of God, an angelic promise in spite of her virginity, would have been sufficient to quell the shame Mary would have contended with amidst accusations of lechery. I wonder if Mary ever had any doubt, if the obedience she expressed in declaring 'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior' ever wavered, if the physical and emotional pressures of motherhood ever obscured the pivotal position she would come to occupy in history and the mission that Jesus came to fulfil. I think about Mary, Joseph's teenage bride, cradling her child, marvelling at the adulation of visitors coming to bear witness to the infant Jesus. I wonder whether she knew that her rosy bundle of joy was the Word wrapped in flesh and blood. These are the preoccupations of the song 'Mary, Did You Know', which mulls over whether Mary could have foreseen the miracles, the pain, the torture, and the hope that would come upon and shine through her son's thirty-three years on earth.
Somehow, it is the paradox that lies in the heart of the birth of Christ that holds a poetic and expressive power. It is as Bono describes of hearing the nativity story once again: 'The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in straw and poverty... a child... I just thought 'Wow!' Just the poetry... Unknowable love, unknowable power describes itself as the most vulnerable.' There is a mystery in the wonder of this story. It is one that cannot help but stir hope in its repudiation of all that this world understands by prestige, power, and recognition. These are the essential elements of the story of Jesus's birth that draw us to Mary's position: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our hearts, to begin to fathom the nature of a divine faith and hope that endures irrepressibly, incomprehensibly. It is the reason we sing, we persist, we hold our loved ones close, and we can cling to hope amidst whatever disappointments we may have faced this past year. It is the reason that Christmas endures as a time of hope and remembrance. As we draw close to our beloved, I pray that we would remember that we do so because God chose to draw close to us- helpless, breastfed, dependent, rich in compassion, deep in love.