Read: Luke 2:15-20
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19, NRSV).
My childhood pastor used to annoy me on an annual basis with the greeting, “Merry Christmas Carol!” (Get it? “Merry Christmas Carol” vs. Merry Christmas, Carol”?) At the time, I did not appreciate the joke. And with all due respect to my pastor, it wasn’t a very good joke.
Over the years, however, I have come to realize that it’s not a bad thing to have this somewhat seasonal name. Carol, after all, means song of joy. If I can carry that connotation with me throughout the year, I may do the world some good.
In spite of the word carol’s meaning, we don’t always sing them with a smile. We certainly don’t expect to burst out laughing.
That’s what caught my attention about this footnote in the hymnal, Glory to God (WJK, 2013). Here is what the editors wrote underneath #138, “Who Would Think That What Was Needed” (alternate title, “God’s Surprise”).
“Hindsight is nearly always clearer than foresight, and with gentle good humor this Christmas hymn points out how great was the gap between human expectation and God’s actual way of providing a means of salvation for us. God’s ways continually exceed our claims to comprehend them.”
The hymn is by John L. Bell and the late Graham Maule of the Iona Community. See if you sense a smile coming on as you read the first verse.
Who would think that what was needed
To transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army,
Proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision,
That a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
Coming here on Christmas Day.
OK, so it’s not a knee-slapper. But it does highlight the surprise at the center of the Christmas story. God chose to by-pass all our plans, our power structures, and our expectations by sending a baby to save the world. To paraphrase the question at the heart of this verse, “Who’d a thunk it?”
It’s this same surprise that Mary “ponders” in her heart at the close of the Christmas story in Luke 2:19. The shepherds have just stumbled up to the manger with their report about an angelic announcement of the birth of a child—her child. This child, the angel had said, is “good news of great joy for all people,” no less than “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Even though Mary had heard a similar angelic announcement earlier in the chapter, this had to have been a lot to take in. But Luke tells us that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
The Greek word behind the word “ponder” means that she considers or engages the shepherd’s words. This doesn’t mean that she understands them, but that she keeps coming back to them, turning them over like a pebble in her pocket.
I like this reminder of the fact that we don’t need to understand God’s surprise in order to treasure it. We can just keep pondering it, smiling, and shaking our heads. God surprises earth with heaven coming here on Christmas Day. Who’d a thunk it?
Ponder the last verse of “Who Would Think That What Was Needed,” by John L. Bell and Graham Maule:
Centuries of skill and science
Span the past from which we move,
Yet experience questions whether,
With such progress, we improve.
While the human lot we ponder,
Lest our hopes and humour fray,
God surprises earth with heaven
Coming here on Christmas Day.
© 1987, Iona Community, GIA Publications, Inc. agent
Listen to this simple but classy recording of “Who Would Think That What Was Needed” (Tune: WHITE ROSETTES). For the full text of the hymn, see this link or #138 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. For a version of the hymn using a different tune plus visuals, see this mix by the North Allerton Methodist Church (Tune: SCARLET RIBBONS).
Pray: Open our hearts to all the ways you wait to surprise us this Christmas and in the new year.
Introduction to the “God With Us” Series
Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.
In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.
May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.
Come, O Come, Emmanuel!