by Bob Lupton “…and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”
Of course everyone wondered! These were shepherds, after all. Shepherds! Illiterates at the bottom of the social pecking order. Smelly, disreputable people, mostly hirelings and scruffy youth, who could not be trusted. Maybe one time, long ago, their class might have been esteemed as the wealth-guardians of nomadic patriarchs but that was before agriculture took root and commerce settled the land. Now they were virtual outcasts, not even permitted to appear as credible witnesses in court. And respectable citizens were supposed to believe that an angel – whole heavenly choir of them – appeared to them?! And invited them to a private reception for Israel’s long anticipated Messiah? When no one else saw any angels and no one else got an invitation? You bet everyone wondered! And for good reason.
It would be like an angel, a whole flock of them, appearing today to a group of homeless guys camped out in the woods, announcing to them that the second coming was about to arrive and they would be first in line. Who would believe them? No matter that they all swore on the Bible that it was really true, that it really happened. The sober citizenry would simply roll their eyes and dismiss it as fantasy or hallucination. They must have gotten into some bad booze!
But Mary didn’t dismiss it. She listened intently to what the shepherds told her about the apparition. She observed their excitement, their naive faith, and invited them to ogle over her newborn infant. While others wondered, Mary pondered. While others doubted, Mary took it all in. While others dismissed the account as preposterous, Mary stayed open to the mysterious movement of the Divine. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
Apparitions were not totally foreign to Mary. Nine months earlier she experienced one herself. And hers was far more incredible than the shepherds’. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and informed her that she would become pregnant, not from human intercourse, but by God himself! Now who would believe a story like that?! And then there were her aging cousins Zacharias and Elisabeth and their miracle child John, whose very name had been couriered by Gabriel. Yes, Mary was acquainted with the fearful, mysterious, wondrous working of the Divine. And her response from the very first was: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
“Be it unto me according to thy word…” No matter how far outside the bounds of convention that word may be. No matter that God would enter human history through an unwed mother, or announce His arrival through social outcasts, or become a political refuge, or underwrite His escape with foreign, pagan wealth. No matter how strange, how baffling these happenings may have seemed, Mary pondered them in her heart. “Be it unto me according to thy word…”
Has this Kingdom which Mary’s Child introduced become any less baffling today? Is the Christmas story, though romanticized and sanitized by centuries of tradition, any less a mystery to us than to Mary? In our poinsettia lined sanctuaries, ablaze with Christmas eve candles and lights, while we are bursting forth in orchestrated anthem “Joy to the world the Lord is come!” are we aware that the Lord has come this night to those who sit in great darkness in squalid refugee camps? While we gather with family around our beautifully adorned Christmas trees are we aware that Christ is appearing in deeply personal ways to broken men huddling under bridges? Indeed, how could we know? Such mysteries are beyond our realm of experience.
But if the entry of Mary’s baby boy is any indication of the way this Prince of Peace appears in our world today, we may be assured that His presence will be revealed to “the least” of society. Of course, stories from the fringes, if they even reach us, may have questionable credibility and bear little resemblance to accepted orthodoxy. Most rational people will wonder about them and question their credibility. But the curious, the naïve, those with child-like faith whose innocence has not been lost to cynicism will, like Mary, ponder these things in their hearts. And when the Divine appears in inexplicable ways, challenging logic, circumventing convention, opening paths to new understanding, they, with Mary, will respond: “Be it unto me according to thy word.”