Perplexed and Pondering
Year in and year out we celebrate Advent and Christmas. We know all about the angels, the virgin, the manger, the baby, the star, the shepherds, and the wise men. We know all the special buzzwords like Bethlehem, the stable, gold, frankincense and myrrh, glory to God in the highest. We put on our mismatched hand sewn costumes of tunics and head coverings and we perform the story in our hand built stable that fits neatly at the front of the church with enough straw to fit cleanly in the manger, but not to sully the church carpet. If we want to get really adventurous, we might even have a real baby in swaddling clothes, and maybe a live donkey and sheep in an outdoor nativity scene. The story of Jesus’ birth has become very familiar. We know it by heart. Since we know it so well that we can retell it by memory, sometimes I find that we have ceased our wonder and marvel of such an unimaginable story. We skip right to the nativity without sitting with Mary as she is perplexed by the words of the angel and ponders what all of this news means. We get antsy if we’re not singing Christmas carols during Advent, instead of leaning into the anticipation and expectation. Then we’re ready to take the tree down as soon as Christmas day is over, because by the time it gets here we’re all partied out! Instead of waiting, expecting, and pondering in Advent, and then celebrating Christmas for 12 days, it seems like we’re dragging out Christmas. What’s really happening is that we don’t have the patience to wait for it so that it might be celebrated properly. How can we celebrate with jubilation if we didn’t have to first long for something to celebrate? How do we know we are ready for the Christ child if we do not take time to sit with Mary and be perplexed and ponder this great mystery with her?
I, like many of you, have more than one nativity scene in my home. I want a visual reminder of what Christmas is about and what we’ve been waiting for during all of Advent. But in our rush to the manger, we forget all the wild events that lead up to the birth of Jesus, the grit and surprise of the birth, and the terror that follows. Our mantel piece nativity scenes are a wonderful reminder, but they are just that: a reminder. They do not contain the whole of the Gospel, and sometimes I fear that we’ve tamed the Gospel as if it’s a children’s fairytale. In fact, let’s visit a popular fairytale that shows us an infinite God cannot be contained but breaks through the barriers of heaven and earth.
In C.S. Lewis’ children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four siblings Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter go through an old wardrobe into a magical world known as Narnia. Here they meet magical creatures that can speak, like Mr. Tumnus who is a faun, half man and half goat. The world of Narnia is stuck in an eternal winter brought on by the White Witch, who is evil and powerful. The White Witch wants to capture these four children for fear that they will overthrow her from her throne, and she arrests Mr. Tumnus for helping them instead of turning them over to the authorities. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are two talking beavers as we learn that the animals in Narnia can speak, decide to help the four children find Mr. Tumnus and set other prisoners free from the White Witch. The Beavers are excited and confident in their mission because they know that Aslan is coming. Aslan is a lion and the King of Narnia. The Beavers know that Aslan the King can save everyone from the White Witch and the eternal winter plaguing Narnia. The children are a little concerned, wondering if this lion that they don’t know is dangerous. Susan asks if Aslan is safe, and Mrs. Beaver says that anyone who doesn’t approach Aslan with knees knocking is a fool. Lucy then says that he mustn’t be a safe lion. Mr. Beaver says that of course he isn’t safe, but he is the King and he is good. Aslan indeed comes as a metaphorical Christ figure to save the day and overcome the death and evil that has choked Narnia for so long.
Just as Aslan is good and a savior, but cannot be assumed to be safe and tame, we too cannot tame the story of the Gospel, forgetting the divine mystery that causes us to be perplexed. What a wild story this is of a virgin named Mary, who is unexpectedly visited by an angel. With no warning, a heavenly being suddenly appears to her, greeting her as a favored one and being told that the Lord is with her. Well, what on earth does that mean? Is the Lord with everyone or just Mary? And since when did Mary become favored? No wonder she was perplexed! Where is this conversation going? What’s about to happen? And then the angel says not to be afraid, when we all know that telling people to calm down doesn’t really help anyone calm down. Then Gabriel continues to say that she will conceive a son, name him Jesus, and he will have the throne of his ancestor David. Excuse me, what? The David, the man after God’s own heart, Jesus will have that throne? This is so outlandish! And it’s impossible, since Mary is a virgin. Oh wait, no, no, apparently that’s not a problem. The Holy Spirit will overshadow her so that she’ll conceive, because that happens everyday. Oh, and no big deal or anything, but this child will be called the Son of God. There’s nothing written in this passage to indicate that time passed for Mary to process this bombshell. But what we do see is something absolutely miraculous: Mary consents. She accepts this task. Regardless of whether she truly comprehended the immensity of the mission set before her, she says, “Let it be.” This enormous, breathtaking story gives us an opportunity to pause, to marvel, and to really mull over what this miracle means. We can’t truly appreciate the child in the manger, if we blow past this sensation at break-neck speed.
If we lose our wonder and awe, then we lose the essence of what it means to have Emmanuel, God with us. In her book, Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L’Engle describes the wonder of Christmas that she had as a child. She would climb into her grandmother’s lap at the family beach house, and they would sway back and forth together in the rocking chair on the porch overlooking the sand dunes. Madeleine would feel safe in her grandmother’s arms as they watched the waves roll in, and her grandmother would sing about the baby Jesus, the little lamb. This made Madeleine marvel at the Maker of the Universe who would be born in this world to show love for us. Her grandmother would then read her an illustrated picture book about Bible stories, and she believed all of the stories about God’s love to be “gloriously true.” She pondered this perplexing mystery of Jesus being born into the world, and she poses the question, “ Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?” She asks the reader this question because she believes that the story of Christ’s coming has become over sentimentalized, and the truth is no longer so striking. Instead of awed silence, we meet the incarnation of Christ with a season of frantic stress, depression, and alienation. Madeleine challenges us to continue to be perplexed by the mystery of the coming of Jesus, and ponder on what it means in our hearts so that we do not lose our wonder and awe.
It’s the last week of Advent, and Christmas will be here in just a few short days. When we do finally get to Christmas day, let’s try not to jump straight to hallelujahs and praises, but pause and continue to be perplexed and pondering. Be perplexed at the God of the universe deciding to enter the world through a woman’s womb, covered in after birth only to be placed in a manger among barn animals. Ponder what it means for the first people in the world to know about the birth of Christ to be shepherds, people who, in this society, had no power or influence. Let’s sit in awe with Mary for a few more days. When we look at the nativity sets on our mantle, let them drive us deeper into the mystery of God instead of letting them be a sentimental, tame fairytale. I leave you with this poem by Ann Weems. May it inspire a wonder in your hearts:
In each heart lies a Bethlehem// An inn where we must ultimately answer// Whether there is room or not.// When we are Bethlehem-bound// We experience our own advent in his.// When we are Bethlehem-bound// We can no longer look the other way// Conveniently not seeing stars// Not hearing angel voices.// We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily// Tending our sheep or our kingdoms.// This advent, let’s go to Bethlehem// and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.// In the midst of shopping sprees // Let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of gifts.// Through the tinsel// Let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.// In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,// Let’s listen for the brush of angel’ wings.// This advent let’s go to Bethlehem// And find our kneeling places.