Scripture Readings for January 1, 2018
One of the things about reflecting on Scripture, or our lives for that matter, is you have to pay attention to the details. Sacred Scripture is the result of many people pouring over the text for years and then other people doing the same thing again, keeping, adding and adjusting until what we have in our Bibles is an amazingly refined piece of work. Nothing is in there by accident, nor was it something that someone dashed off in a moment of hurried necessity.
So I make this point because there’s a detail in today’s reading that I think raises very interesting questions. I think I noticed it because today is the solemnity of Mary as the Mother of God. Luke is talking about the shepherd’s coming to visit Jesus and passing on to Mary and Joseph what the angel’s had told them. And then he says, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” This reminds me of the scene later in Luke after Jesus, now 12, has been talking with the teachers in the temple. Once again Luke says, “His mother kept all these things in her heart.” So for me, Luke is saying Mary is trying to understand what these events mean even after visits from angels. Why else do you reflect on something?
This pattern began the first time the angel comes to Mary and announces that she is favored by God. According to Luke, Mary’s response was to be disturbed and “asked herself what this greeting could mean.” Luke is portraying Mary as not being sure what is going on. To me the real indicator comes after the angel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant and she immediately leaves and goes “as quickly as she could” to see Elizabeth. I’m convinced she’s going primarily to verify what the angel has told her.
We see this same behavior in the shepherds of today’s reading. The angel announces Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds and gives them a sign they can verify. This child will be lying in a manger, an animals feeding trough. What do they do? They go “in haste” to see if it’s true. Luke spells out the evidence, they find “the infant lying in a manger.” And only then do they tell Mary and Joseph the message of the angel. Finally, when they return glorifying God for all they had seen it is because it was, “just as it had been told to them.” In other words they weren’t sure it was true until they could see it.
Now you could write off Mary’s reflecting on all these things in her heart as devote behavior in the face of divine revelations. However, I think Luke is giving us a sample of what happens when we encounter God acting in our lives. What, in retrospect, we interpret as God’s help in our lives is often something we didn’t recognize at the time. Coming to see God’s action is a process of real life verification, checking out what parts are good and what isn’t. I don’t think we should read these wonderful Bible stories and think, “how come that doesn’t happen anymore?” Well, it wasn’t obvious to the people in Biblical times. It took time for people to figure out that these events were God’s action.
Luke’s telling of the story is from the perspective of one who understands the significance of what happened. We shouldn’t take them so literally that we miss the underlying meaning. Without undercutting the point of the story, Luke is hinting at what it might have been like for the original participants. Which suggests what it to be like for us. God could be bowling us over and we may not, in the moment, recognize what turns out to have been an angel in front of us.