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This meditation was given by Douglas Yeo at Hope Church in Lenox, Massachusetts on December 24, 2001.

"Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you."

With those words, a young Jewish girl living in Israel found her life changed. And with her life, our lives as well.

Mary. What a remarkable woman she must have been.

If you can, try to remove Mary from the romanticized images of her which fill our mind, images of a lovely woman in blue and white clothing, radiant face, halo positioned above her head. Great works of art and many Christmas carols which speak of her have had a way of suspending the reality of what actually happened to Mary. If we can only imagine ourselves in her place we might gain a needed perspective of how God intervened in history to redeem mankind.

When approached by the angel, Mary's response was not what we might have expected to hear. The Gospel of Luke tells us, in Chapter 1, verse 29, that Mary "was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be." No falling to her knees, no tears, no hiding her eyes from a blinding light. When the angel said, "Hail favored one! The Lord is with you," Mary was troubled.

Imagine the workings of her mind when told that she would be made pregnant - not through relations with any man, but through a miracle which came directly from God. Yes, I know you've thought about it before, but try to REALLY try to imagine yourself in her place.

Our Christmas card image of Mary prevents us from appreciating the enormity of what transpired in those moments which would lead to a changed world. Mary, without being asked, without being given a choice, and without any warning or preparation, was told that she would be a mother and would bear a son who would be called Jesus. And this son of hers would "be called the Son of the Most High and His kingdom will have no end."

I am a father. And while I love my children dearly, I am not, and never will be, a mother. I was in the delivery room when our daughters Linda and Robin were born, but my wife, Pat, has experienced something I can never have - that is the growing of our daughters inside of her and their being brought into the world through her. Fathers can appreciate this awesome responsibility mothers have but we cannot understand it. And so only a mother can look at Mary and say, "I know how it was."

Mothers know what it is to be late in a pregnancy and need to take a long journey - to walk or ride in a car over bumpy roads. Mothers know about the heartburn, the sleepless nights, the kicking and jumping which pushes their insides all around. And mothers can look at Mary, who lay down in a stinking, smelly, dirty stable, and imagine what it was like for her when her water broke. No nurses with sterile, gloved hands, no fetal monitors and reassuring doctors, no hospital bed with clean sheets. Just her husband Joseph and a few filthy farm animals were there to give her comfort when Jesus was delivered without her receiving an IV, or any anesthesia, or even a sliver of an ice cube to suck upon.

Mary was a real woman who had real pain in childbirth, and who had felt her son grow in her for nine months just like many of you. But more than just being a delivery vessel for Jesus, she was something else, something even more important. She was Jesus' mother.

Mother. That's what Jesus called Mary.

And this mother named Mary was given a burden greater than any burden which had been given to any mother in all of time.

When our daughters were young, we had a tradition at Christmas time. My wife taught Linda and Robin the Christmas story from Luke's gospel, and when we gathered together as a family surrounded by aunt and uncle and grandma and grandpa, the girls would stand and recite the Christmas story from memory. It was a special time, and I would venture to say that there are probably many here who know the feeling we had when we heard our girls speak those memorable words, "Now it came to pass in the days of Ceasar Augustus...."

But there was one part of the Christmas story which we often overlook because it doesn't seem to fit. In fact, I'm not at all sure Linda and Robin understood what they were saying when they recited it - and I'm not sure I've ever really understood it either.

After the shepherds, who were told by an angel of the birth of their Messiah, came to see Mary, Joseph and the Christ child, they left to tell others about the miraculous event. And then Luke's gospel records a confusing, but telling moment in that stable:

"But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."

There it is again - that word: pondering.

The same Mary who was troubled when the angel first came to her was now in a contemplative and pensive mood. She was not sitting at cradle side radiant and beaming. She was pondering the meaning of the events which had just occurred - and what was yet to come. She was overcome with a deep thought because she knew more than what the shepherds had been told.

A few days later, when Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son to be circumcised in the Temple, the prophet Simeon blessed them, and, turning to Mary, uttered a chilling prophecy, "Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed - and a sword will pierce even your own soul - to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."

Can any mother here tonight imagine what must have raced through Mary's mind at that moment? It was as if Mary was now Sleeping Beauty's mother - suddenly aware that at some point in the future, some terrible thing would happen in the life of her young family.

Mary, did you know? You did know, didn't you?

The Christmas carol we sing tells us the painful truth that Mary had to face - in fact, it is the truth which faces us as well:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die,
For poor ordinary people like you and like I, I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

How Mary must have wondered. As she and Joseph taught Jesus to talk, and walk, and drink from a cup, and eat with a spoon - to play, to have good manners, to worship at the synagogue, to go to school and learn a trade - how she must have wondered when the moment would come - perhaps just around the next corner - when her soul would be pierced and her son would prick his finger on a spinning wheel and be taken from her.

Try as we might to make the image of Mary and Joseph around the manger into something comfortable, we must still confront the fact that the earthly mother of little boy Jesus - the little boy whose first word - like your first word - may have been "mama" - knew that the glorious promise of the angel would be fulfilled only after her own soul had been pierced with watching her son die.

For in that crib in that stable was not merely a baby. There was a cross.

No matter how Madison Avenue tries to disguise it, or how hard we try to avoid it or cover it up with brightly colored bows on packages, lights on trees and candy canes, we face the reality that the birth of Jesus nearly 2000 years ago was a bittersweet moment for a mother named Mary.

We can turn to old Christmas carols to remind us of this. "The Holly and the Ivy" speaks of the symbolism of the holly which bears a berry "as red as any blood." It reminds us that:

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.

The beautiful melody "Greensleeves" belies the painful truth of the second verse of "What Child Is This?":

Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians fear: for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nail, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail! Hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!

The significance of Christmas is that it points to Good Friday - and beyond that to Easter. There was a cross in the crib, and behind the cross, an empty tomb and the promise of eternal life for sinners with names like Mary and Joseph, Doug and Pat. And your name, too.

Mary teaches us that while God gives each of us magnificent gifts, we must have a loose grip on them when He calls us to let them go. Mary gave up her son and the world gained redemption through his death and resurrection. It is through the giving, the letting go - that we gain far more in return.

Oh, how we love Christmas. The gathering of family, the singing of the carols, the dressing of the tree. But the slogans which adorn our Christmas cards - "Put Christ back into Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season" - have meaning only if we put the birth of Jesus into the context of a plan of God which has unfolded over thousands of generations of time.

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

The old Irish carol, "Christmas Day Is Come!" tells the story we put aside as the wrapping paper is flying:

Yet hath he not intention to shun his fate decreed;
His death must be the ransom by which mankind is freed,
With a long course of suffering for thirty years and three
Which must be all completed upon Mount Calvary;
For these he now preserves him, contented to begin
In poverty and misery to pay for all our sin.

Then let our joys abound now all his grief is o'er;
We celebrate his victory: his suffering we deplore.
Though 'twas in toil and slavery his begetting was for us:
Be welcome, then, thrice welcome, divine Saviour Jesus!
Your Christmas is in glory: your torments are all passed:
Whate'er betide us now, grant us the same at last!

If we would then rejoice, let's cancel the old score,
And, purposing amendment, resolve to sin no more;
For mirth can ne'er content us without a conscience clear,
And thus we'll find true pleasure in all the usual cheer:
In dancing, sporting, revelling with masquerade and drum;
So be our Christmas merry, as Christians doth become.

Tomorrow night, Christmas will be over, and our calendars will soon turn to December 26th. If we are to be left with more than a bulging credit card balance, frazzled nerves and a over-full stomach, we do well to recall what it was like on that first Christmas. How a mother looked down on her Son - a Son like no other Son - the very Son of God - and she saw in his ruddy face the Redeemer of all mankind. A Redeemer who came to live on this earth for a time and then to die - for the salvation of God's chosen people.

Christmas is not a stand alone event. It is part of the still unfolding story of God's love for mankind which began in the Garden of Eden and which will end with the glorious second coming of Jesus.

There is an old English carol which tells so beautifully what it is that we truly celebrate tonight. Listen and you will hear what it was that Mary knew...

This is the truth sent from above, the truth of God, the God of love,
Therefore don't turn me from the door, but hearken all, both rich and poor.

The first thing that I will relate, that God at first did man create;
The next thing which to you I tell, woman was made with him to dwell.

Then after that t'was God's own choice to place them both in paradise,
There to remain from evil free except they ate of such a tree.

But they did eat, which was a sin, and thus their ruin did begin -
Ruined themselves, both you and me, and all of our posterity.

Thus we were heirs to endless woes till God the Lord did interpose;
And so a promise soon did run: that he'd redeem us by his Son.

And at this season of the year our blest Redeemer did appear,
And here did live, and here did preach, and many thousands he did teach.

Thus he in love to us behaved, to show us how we must be saved;
And if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say:

"Go preach the Gospel," now he said, "To all the nations that are made!
And he that does believe on me, from all his sins I'll set him free."

O seek! O seek of God above that saving faith that works by love!
And, if he's pleased to grant thee this, thou'rt sure to have eternal bliss.

God grant to all within this place true saving faith, that special grace
Which to his people doth belong: and thus I close my Christmas song.

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