Christmas as Prayer
“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” –St. Luke 2:18
In Advent last year, Marcus Borg, known to many of us as a refreshingly honest New Testament scholar, came to Washington to address us Episcopal clergy in a diocesan quiet day, a custom for which we gather in early December. Borg began by asking us quickly to recall some of our memories of Christmas when we were children. Several hands shot up including mine. Like the eager schoolboy I once was, I unrestrainedly confessed to my colleagues that when I was a boy, I was the decorator in my family. I saw nothing particularly funny about that, but my comment brought the house down, so much so that Borg commented that something must have been going on that was escaping him. When the laughter abated, I reminisced that every December I would go through the woods surrounding our farmhouse gathering holly and pine boughs which I would use to decorate the front door and the table in our living room, as we had no mantle.
Of the many things I remember about Christmases long ago, the strongest memories cluster about that holly, green at first but rapidly brown because my grandmother heated the living room to something like 80°. Taking my cues from the best source I had, namely the sentimental pictures on the Methodist bulletin covers at that time of year, I would place the family Bible in the middle of the living room table, open to the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, flank it with red candles in silver holders, and surround it with holly.
And, long before I knew the word “liturgy,” I liked nothing better than to gather the family in the living room and either read or orchestrate the reading of Luke 2:1-20. On some level the verse that struck me as perhaps the most mysterious was towards the end. “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I have a vague memory of my mother commenting on that at some point. And perhaps I heard our pastor, Mr. Hedgepath, preach on that text. It is somehow connected for me with the very first image of the Blessed Mother that resonated with me: a large, oak-framed sepia print of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which hung in my Sunday school classroom while I was out gathering holly.
Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. I imagined that the woman I saw on my Sunday school classroom wall was pondering, thinking about, the child she was holding, remembering all the strange things that were said about him and all the weird dimensions of his birth. What I could not have known at that age, but know now, is that Mary’s pondering all those things in her heart was her prayer. And it is prayer more than anything else which spells the difference between getting at the meaning of Christmas and forgetting it or never getting it.
Luke says that Mary “preserved” all these things. What things? What the shepherds reported that the angel had said: “born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This proclamation fits with what the angel had said to Mary herself at the annunciation: “…and now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But then Luke goes on to say something that nobody fully understands. He uses a verb that we hear in English as “pondered.” But that is probably too weak a way of conveying the meaning. It is more like, “she tossed them together in her heart.” Somebody looked into the matter further and came up with the probability that the whole sentence might mean something like, “But Mary treasured all these things, tossing them over and over in her heart, trying to find the right meaning of it all.”
That’s interesting. Most folks I listen to, or whose ads and cards and donation requests I read, have it all figured out. I hear phrases like “the true meaning of Christmas” and it would surprise me if anyone has tossed much Christmas around trying to figure it out. Typically, Christians are used to hearing scripture like this and, unlike our Jewish cousins, assume that we are hearing history, not myth and poetry and symbol. The Nativity is too large to be understood factually. It is beyond the scope of The Washington Post, CNN, or even Fox News. It exceeds all that can be neatly computed and quantified. And here, embedded in the story itself, is a clue as to what must happen if we are ever to find the right meaning of it all: ponder it, savor it, chew on it, over and over in your heart, until it becomes a part of you.
Madeleine L’Engle authored an exceedingly lovely book telling in her own masterful words the story of Christ, inspired and illustrated by Giotto’s famous frescoes in the little Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. She entitled the book The Glorious Impossible, and wrote, “Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.” And I would add: the only thing to do with the impossibles is to take them into your prayer.
Notice that I do not say “prayers.” For the first several years that I lived in Washington, I had a spiritual director, a very wise woman, who would ask me periodically what I was doing with thus and such an issue in my prayer? I would typically take her to be asking me what or how I was praying about whatever it was. “No,” she would say, “not what are you praying—as in the words you think or say—but what are you doing with it in your prayer?” It took me many months to learn that “my prayer” was not the content of my meditation, let alone the words I say that begin with “Dear God” or something of the sort. My prayer is my continual pondering, cogitating, ruminating, considering, tossing around the events and images and sounds and patterns of my life, trying to find the meaning of it all. Some of it is words, and sometimes those words are anything but typically religious ones. But sometimes the only thing I can do about the beauty of a relationship is hug or kiss or hold. And sometimes prayer is a formal thanksgiving. But just as often it is humming a song or whistling as I walk down the street or singing something at the top of my lungs when I am in my truck and no one but the Maker of the Universe can hear me. Sometimes such pondering takes me to the piano and my oldest art becomes the medium in which I express myself. I have known it to drive me to a canvas, where something takes hold of me and delivers in color and form what eludes my reason. I have known it to happen in the garden or washing dishes or running or hiking or—yes!–decorating!
In Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” two little putti, who have been reproduced ad infinitum on Christmas cards and all manner of angel paraphernalia, are hanging on the balustrade, looking up, their backs turned to the action, yet still aware of the Mother and Child. One cherub is cogitating, its chubby finger on its lips. The other is enchanted, perhaps, or mystified, or adoring, or maybe even a trifle bored. I imagine that the faces of the putti, more than anything else in the painting, betray the prayer of the artist himself, painting this towards the end of his life. Like his little putti, he does not yet know what to make of it all. The magnificent birth eludes him. It is too wonderful for him, so high that he cannot attain it. In a way he is tossing around and around in his paint and form the possible meaning of the Gloriously Impossible, just as the Virgin herself is doing.
Now I know that what I was doing when I was eight or nine years old plucking holly from the woods was my prayer. Some part of a little boy was adoring the Christ Child as really as the Christ Child was adoring the little boy. He had to open the Book and place the holly around it because that was the only way he knew to weave together story and symbol. He could not grasp the beauty of his flesh any more than his little hands could grasp holly without getting stuck and bleeding. But bit by bit, over the years, the story told itself, and things began to sink in. He learned that the flesh which the Word became in being born was something to rejoice in, not to be ashamed of. He learned that the Savior born that day in the City of David had a peculiar pull on him that he could not shake. And he treasures now so many things that do and don’t have to do with what happened on the hillside outside Bethlehem or in the cave where Mary and Joseph camped with the animals. Little bits of boyhood, like the memory of a Christmas shopping trip with his grandmother; the memory of giving an engagement ring when he thought his life had finally come together; one Advent spent working to build a homemade substitute for the Barbie Dream House for his little girls, wondering if they would be at all enchanted by their parents’ creativity or put off by the substitution of craft for expensive toys (they were appropriately impressed!); falling asleep on Christmas morning in the arms of his beloved, too overjoyed at the goodness of life to say much more than “Thank you, God.” Sheep and shepherds and angels and New Life: the glorious impossible he treasures and keeps turning all of it, all of it, Christmas and brokenness, Christmas and healing, Christmas and joy, over and over in his heart, where the boundaries between story and symbol, heaven and earth, Jesus and the boy fade and disappear.
Take your life tonight and all that is in it into your prayer. Memories and hopes, forgiveness and irritations, surprises and boredom, excitement and joy: take them all into your prayer. Keep asking what the Child that was born that day in the city of David has to do with you, and how you ever came to hear the great glad tidings of the angels, and how the mystery of the universe ever became your own Glorious Impossible. Treasure it. And toss it around and around in your heart until you come by grace to your own moment of meaning.
©Frank G. Dunn, 2010