I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.
But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours), I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.
However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask, Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.
Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.