Twelve Days: Ponder and Treasure

…Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:19

If you want the Christian life in a nutshell, I’m not sure you could do much better than this famous verse from Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, which ascribes two related but distinct actions to Mary.

She ponders. That doesn’t mean that she made sense of what angels and shepherds had told her. Twelve years later, she still didn’t understand why her missing son would need to be in his (heavenly) Father’s house while his (earthly) parents feared for him. Forty-some years into my life as a Christian, there’s still so much I don’t understand about Christ.

But pondering suggests something other than problem-solving. From the moment she pondered the perplexing words of God’s messenger to her, Mary had had to get used to thinking about a deity whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose foolishness is wiser than our wisdom.

So Mary provides us with the Bible’s first account of a Christian contemplative, a follower of Jesus reflecting on who he was in all the depths of his unfathomable mystery.

John Singleton Copley, study for “The Head of the Virgin” (1777) – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

But Mary does more than ponder. She also treasures the words she had heard, just as she would treasure things she saw later in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51).

That might feed our image of Mary as a quiet figure, stepping back from her big moment in the drama into the near-silence that marks the rest of her life. But I’m struck that the Greek words in Luke 2 that English Bibles translate as “treasure” or “keep” actually mean something more like “preserve.” What she has done is to prevent key parts of Jesus’ story from joining most of the past in being lost, as time rushes forward and historical evidence disappears. In treasuring what she recognized to be historically significant, she guarded human memory against its tendency to forget and distort.

In historian talk, Mary was likely the most important primary source for our first secondary source about her son’s birth. Writing decades after the event, Luke doesn’t come out and say that Mary is one of the “eyewitnesses and servants of the Word” who “handed on” to him their recollections as he constructed his “orderly account” (1:1-2) of Jesus’ life. But who else could have told him the events that make his first two chapters so distinctive among the four gospels?

So, in not just pondering what she has seen and heard but treasuring it, Mary is engaged in something more than passive contemplation of the mysteries of Christianity. She is actively preparing for one of the most important activities of any Christian: to bear witness to Christ.

In other settings, treasure might suggest hoarding, keeping something scarce and valuable for the benefit of ourselves. But Mary preserves her son’s story in order to share it with others, which is the task of all those who love and follow Jesus.

So one final observation about Luke 2:19 — it’s remarkable that it’s even there. In a society like the one into which Jesus was born, Mary could so easily have disappeared from any account by verse 7: having given birth and cared for her infant, she had fulfilled the role expected of her. But as at the other end of the gospels, this most important, unbelievable story in human history is entrusted to a most unlikely source: a woman. Truly, God does lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.

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