What Mary Kept: January 3, 2021

January 6, 2021

 Year B, Christmas 2                                                              Luke 2:41-52                                                                           

            While we were in the adoption process, I had a vision of how it would look when we finally brought our baby home—pure bliss.  All those years of waiting would culminate in this experience of joy.  There was tremendous joy, but there was something else—grief.  Because I knew that while I was bringing home a new baby, another mother was leaving the hospital with empty arms and conflicted emotions.  This knowledge didn’t temper the joy, it complicated it.  I was carrying this host of emotions and frankly, I wasn’t too happy about it.  I wanted something pure and free from pain.  I wanted what I perceived other new mothers had.

            I believe that experience gave me a new appreciation for Mary.  Throughout the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, we have witnessed her experience many new things and an array of emotions. When she learned that she was miraculously pregnant with the savior of humanity—she was frightened and bewildered, but also inspired. Then after she had the baby and the shepherds shared the news that they had learned from the angels, that this child she held was the Messiah—she was peaceful, but probably a little concerned. The text tells us, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” It’s not clear what she was feeling, but it sounds like it was messy.  She knew that being the mother of this child wasn’t going to be an ordinary experience.  She just didn’t know how extraordinary it would be.

            After all these angelic visits and one miraculous birth, the story we hear today seems almost mundane. I mean it would be terrifying for any parent, but the experience itself is ordinary in the sense that it was human.  Their child was missing. They were scared and beside themselves with worry.  It would seem, they might have even forgotten who exactly they were dealing with.  He was the Son of God, destined for greatness…he probably wasn’t going to just get lost. But he was also their son and they were not thinking rationally or even spiritually.  They were just feeling visceral fear.

They did what anyone would do, they retraced their steps, talked to people who might have seen them, probably had an argument that sounded like this, “You were supposed to be the one watching him!”  Finally, they went to the place where we always end up in the Gospel of Luke—the temple.  Remember, we were just in the temple…it was about 12 years before, but only a few verses back when Jesus was presented as an infant.   

            The temple is a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The story begins in the temple when Zechariah hears the voice of God telling him that his elderly wife will conceive a child.  The Gospel ends in the temple as well.  After Jesus is resurrected and ascends to heaven, the apostles who witnessed his ascension returned to Jerusalem.  The very last line is, “And they were continuously in the temple praising God.”  Traditional Jewish customs were important to Jesus, his family and his disciples.  The first thing Jesus did after he was tempted by Satan was to go to the Temple to pray.  It’s a funny thing when you think about it.  I mean, if anyone shouldn’t need a place to worship, it’s Jesus (God incarnate).  Why does he have to go to a holy building to talk to himself?  Yet again and again we see him return to the temple, to a place that felt like home for him.

            Thus when his parents finally found him and expressed anxiety and frustration that he would leave them, he was perplexed.  This was the temple, the holy place where he felt close to God.  This is where they should have come first.  So he asked them, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  We don’t hear their response.  It just says that they didn’t understand him.  Now while his question seems almost disrespectful, we are told that he left with them and was obedient.

Then the Gospel writer adds, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” It’s the same words we hear right after Jesus’ birth when the shepherds visited her and told her about their angelic visitors and the message they sent.  Some translators say that a better interpretation would be, “She kept these things in her mind and heart.”  When we read the phrase “treasure in her heart” we sentimentalize the experience, as if she is creating a scrapbook of happy memories.  But I wonder if what was really happening was she was coming to terms with all of these conflicting emotions.  Fear and amazement.  Anxiety and relief.  Love and grief.  These events and words, were all wrestling around in her mind and heart. 

Just a few verses before the ones we heard today, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple when he was just a few days old.  The prophet Simeon saw Jesus and proclaimed, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed  so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  It could never be simple for Mary.  It could not be a simple congratulations on your new baby.  Given everything she was being told from angels, to shepherds, to strange prophets, and eventually her own son—her soul, her heart, and her mind must have been in constant turmoil. 

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe 

Yet we sing of Mary, meek and mild.  We paint her with a peaceful and placid expression. Then we use her as an example of a faithful servant, a model for all of us. I would agree that she is a model for all of us, but more so because her joy was not the bliss that self-help gurus try to sell us.  It was contemplative and mysterious.  Her life and faith was full, but she was also wounded, wounded by the knowledge that her son’s life would be difficult.   There would be pain and tragedy, but there would also be resurrection.

As we begin a new year, I know that I would like to just forget everything that has happened in 2020 and start over.  We can’t.  Over 350,000 people have died in the United States alone from COVID.  And of course, other things have been going on as well.  I could list them, but then it just sounds like I am listing the plagues.  We all know what happened in 2020.  Things will get better, but it’s not going to happen as quickly or easily as any of us want.  We have all been wounded, but so were Jesus and Mary.  Jesus was wounded physically and Mary was wounded emotionally and spiritually.

But she never lost hope. She probably asked God a lot of questions.  She probably wept and maybe even got angry at times.  But she kept all these things in her heart.  She didn’t throw it out because it made her sad or scared.  She held all those words and experiences close to her heart.  2020 and at least part of 2021 won’t be the year that most of us carry in our hearts with fond memories.  We won’t treasure most of these times.  But let’s keep them in our hearts.  Let’s learn from it, grow from it and tend to the wounds that need healing.  Then, when we come out the other side, let us experience the complicated joy that is life as a disciple of a crucified and resurrected God.  God willing…let us do it together, in this holy space where we meet God and one another.