The message of the angels demands a thoughtful response

At carol services up and down the country yet again millions will hear the angel of the Lord declare, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. The question is: how will they respond? In Luke’s account of the nativity “all who heard… were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2.18). It was an astonishing story. That was as far as it went. The fact is that “amazement is not itself faith” (James Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke, 2015). Mary, by contrast “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2.19).

In what sense did Mary “treasure” her experience of that first Christmas night? According to Arndt & Gingirch’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, the underlying Greek word (sunterein) can have the meaning of “protect or defend against harm; keep in mind, be concerned about; hold or treasure up in one’s memory”. Mary did not simply “remember”, but rather made a determined effort to keep hold in her mind of what happened that evening. Significantly, whereas the amazement of the common people was no more than a nine-day wonder (Luke uses the so-called Greek ‘aorist’ past tense which describes a one-off event or experience), Mary continued to ruminate on that night (Luke uses the Greek ‘imperfect’ tense which describes an ongoing event or experience). The same word is used in the Greek version of Genesis 37.11 where Jacob ‘puzzles’ over Joseph’s dream – or as the NRSV somewhat mundanely translates “his father kept the matter in mind”.

Mary also “pondered” over what she had heard and experienced. The underlying Greek word (sumballein) literally means ‘to throw side by side’: i.e. she was ‘juggling’ everything in her mind, as she sought to make sense of that night. In contemporary Greek the word could be used to mean “to interpret obscure events, hitting upon the right meaning, often with divine aid”. Yes, over the coming months and years Mary continued to think deeply over what had happened. Understanding doubtless, only came after the resurrection of Jesus – for only then did it become clear that Jesus was indeed “the Lord, the Messiah, the Saviour” (see Acts 2.36; 5.31).

In my book Joy to the World (IVP 2005) I reflect on the contrast between the response of the ordinary village folk to the shepherds’ report and Mary’s. The response of the village folk is reminiscent to the response of those whom Jesus likened to seed rock, who when they heard the word “receive it with joy”, but then, because they have no root, “believe only for a while” (Luke 8.13). Mary’s response by contrast is reminiscent of those whom Jesus likened to good soil, who “when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Luke 8.15).

Indeed, the Parable of the Sower can be taken as a paradigm for the differing responses to the Christmas message. There are some who can be likened to the concrete pavement on which they walk as they do their Christmas shopping. They hear the Christmas carols sung, but pay no attention to the message. They may even attend a Midnight Mass, but the words of the preacher go through one ear and out another. They do not believe, and so are not saved. Then there are others who, like the Bethlehem village folk, can be likened to rocky soil. They love to sing the Christmas carols, they always go to church at Christmas, but their response to the Christmas story is no more than skin-deep. They are like the Christmas trees that decorate many a home, which have no root and so soon die. They believe for a while, but then fall away. There are yet others who can be likened to thorny soil. They are really moved by the Christmas story. Over New Year they make a resolution to go to church every week, and for a while keep that resolution. They may even attend an Alpha course and commit their life to Christ .But along come pressures of various kinds, and God gets squeezed out. Their new found faith is soon choked to death. Finally, there are others who like Mary “treasure” God’s word in their heart. They not only hear God’s word, but that word becomes alive in them – for Christ enters in and they are born again to eternal life.

Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” – and so must we. The message of the angels calls for a thoughtful response.

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