Vail Daily column: Ponder Christmas
Mary mused after hearing excited shepherds tell stories about her infant son. She “pondered Jesus’ birth in her heart,” concentrating on implications for her son’s life and identity.
Our hectic pace blocks Mary’s pondering because musing takes time and demands diligent effort. Recently, “60 Minutes” correspondent Anderson Cooper shared frustration over information overload that undercut contemplation. Wanting to correct his pondering deficiency, Cooper enrolled in a seminar guru Jon Kabat-Zinn led which increased self-awareness.
Participants surrendered their cell phones. Cooper felt cut off from civilization. Prior to the seminar, his mind jumped between instant messaging and hourly catching up on emails. Cooper learned to re-focus. He pondered, which in turn released curiosity to discern and dig deeper into life’s meaning.
Similarly, Mary pondered thoughts she couldn’t comprehend. At best, we intuit what dreams or inner voices whisper. Prior to that first Christmas, an angel visited father Joseph in a dream, suggesting his first-born’s miraculous birth. A narrator cloaks Mary’s pregnancy in mystery, having readers willingly suspend their disbelief. Mary conceived, the story goes, without physical relations with Joseph.
Christians split into two camps when interpreting this Christmas story. Biblical literalists accept angels and the Immaculate Conception as historical fact. Christian liberals take these stories as fables, the truth of which isn’t tied to their actually happening.
“With God, all things are possible,” say scriptural literalists. These believers treat the Christmas story as bald fact, an accurate record of what happened in and around Bethlehem. Little is left to the imagination. No need to ponder, say literalists, because the story of Christ’s birth rests on straight-forward factual information. They empty mystery from the Christmas story.
Religious liberals differ. They treat the Christmas story as an enchanted saga, like “Peter Pan.” Liberals interpret the Christmas tale as they do Aesop’s fables. Both stories contain truth that emerges after naive notions of flitting angels and talking animals are cut out.
Religious liberals patch together the Christmas story in the following manner. They surmise how early Christians took stock of Jesus after his death. They loved this peasant teacher so much that they imagined him to be divine. As an act of veneration, these early believers read into the primitive biblical script references to angels and an Immaculate Conception as an act of devotion. These Christians went so far as to worship Jesus, as they did God.
Religious liberals are comfortable with such rational theories about the origins of the Christmas story, which leave little to ponder. Mysteries are explained away.
Biblical professor Walter Wink, who taught at liberal Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, chastises colleagues who trade Christmas’ mysteries for rational theories of how the story was formed. He believes “the modernist (is) not nearly so interested in being changed by his (or her) reading of the bible, as in changing that way that the bible was read in order to conform it to the modern spirit” (The Bible in Human Transformation, 1973).
Reading the Christmas story, literalists and liberals make a huge mistake. Literalists accept too easily the mystery of what happened long ago because God did it. Liberals sweep away Yuletide’s mysteries. They spin theories of how early Christians’ devotion to Jesus turned him into Christ who shared God’s divine status.
In a society tied to text messaging, Instagrams and a frenetic pace, we’ve neglected pondering. Such contemplation thrives on unhurried moments couched in silence.
Making time to ponder isn’t a new challenge. During the same year the Constitution was crafted, a 1787 New York newspaper reported how Americans observed the 12 days of Christmas. Some Christians pondered, encountering Christmas’ mysteries. They worshiped “for a most sacred purpose.” Others partied instead of contemplating Christ. Degrading Christmas into a carnival, they were “reveling in profusion, and paying their sincere devotions to merry Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and festivity.”
Pondering equips us to engage the Christmas story’s mysteries rather than avoiding them. What’s the outcome? Howard Thurman writes, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart …
“And to radiate the (mysterious) light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.” Pondering spurs Christian practice.
On this Christmas Day, don’t gullibly accept what happened that first Christmas. Neither dismiss as fantasy accounts of Jesus’ birth. Instead, ponder its mystery.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations.
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