Praising and Pondering
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The shepherds listened with amazement to the angel choir singing Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace and good will! They couldn’t just go back to work after that, because they realized that everything had changed:

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)

The shepherds praised, but Mary pondered. Two contrasting reactions to the same event. Both were reasonable and valid responses, but they were very different. One was loud, the other silent. One was spontaneous, the other restrained. One was exuberant and emotional, the other thoughtful and inquisitive. One was from the heart, the other from the mind. Strikingly different, and yet see how they complimented each other! Both praising and pondering are necessary for our faith response to what happened that night.

We know what praising is, but pondering is less obvious. The original Greek language is very revealing. The first verb indicates that Mary “kept,” “treasured,” “remembered” all the words she heard—this is kind of like data-collecting. But the second verb, the one translated “pondered,” describes what Mary’s mind did with the data. Every other time this word is used in the New Testament, it refers to a conversation between two or more people, with the meaning “confer,” “meet with,” “talk over.” But here it is used of an internal conversation Mary had with herself. In reality, she had a lot more information to think about than the shepherds did, who had just heard the news that night. She had a nine-month head start on them. For Mary, “pondering” meant rolling many confusing facts over and over in her mind—the mysterious pregnancy, the social shame it brought, her heated conversations with Joseph, the visit with cousin Elizabeth, the awesome encounter with the angel Gabriel (had that really happened?). There was a lot to ponder.

* * * * *

Our Christmas experience will also involve both praising and pondering. The stimulation to praise will confront us constantly, in the lights, the music, the gift-giving and cheery “Merry Christmas!” greetings. But we will also hear the voices of hunger and hurting, replay memories of lost loved ones, sense the fleeting years and unfulfilled dreams in our own lives. And the ultimate Christmas message, that God has come “in the flesh” — this very flesh in which we experience life’s dark side—will once again shine into every corner of hopelessness and helplessness.

How does this happen? How does the Christmas story continual to have the power to speak where words fail? How can the joy and grace and salvation experienced by that little band of first-hand witnesses in Bethlehem still be ours today in a world of disbelief and crass materialism? Now, there’s something to ponder!