Preaching and pondering

Shepherds_Bow_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s Martin Luther on Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”:

Why did she ponder these things in her heart? Because she too was in need of preaching. Even though she was the mother and had borne the Child, she had need to ponder these words in her heart, in order to strengthen her faith and increase her assurance. She reflected how these words corresponded to those of the angel: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.” […] The quality of faith in this Virgin no words can express. If anyone has faith and thinks he knows enough, let him take a lesson from this mother and let him assemble the passages of Scripture in order to confirm his faith. If he has one passage, good, but if he has eight or ten, that is better. (Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, pp.42f.)

This shows what meditation means for Luther: “preaching to oneself,” proclaiming the gospel to yourself by “pondering in your heart” the scriptures. Note that Mary wasn’t engaged in introspective spiritual self-analysis (“do I believe? is God living in my heart?”), but pondering the things she had seen and heard.

Luther contrasts this with the shepherds, who (he surmises from the reaction to Christ’s ministry as an adult) soon forgot the message they had received from the angels and which they passed on to others:

[The shepherds] became preachers themselves and told everybody what they had learned from this Child, for the Evangelist says, “And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.” Yes, but they did not remember them very long. For a quarter of a year anyone could have told how the Child had been born at Bethlehem, how the angels sang and the Wise Men came from the East. But two, three, or four years afterward everyone had forgotten. And when the Lord came to baptism at the age of thirty, no one remembered a thing about it. (p.44)

Now, whether that’s fair on the shepherds or not, there is a crucial pastoral message here. No doubt it’s unlikely the shepherds would have reached a point where they denied what had happened. When reminded, no doubt they could still have come out with the old tale about the night they heard the angels sing and saw the baby in a feeding trough. But, unlike Mary (“but Mary…”), they had lost that living connection with Christ through the ongoing preaching and proclamation of the gospel.

And that’s the lesson here: it’s not enough for any of us merely to retain our allegiance to the gospel as a concept or to the church as an institution. We need to hear the gospel proclaimed to us repeatedly in word and sacrament – including the gospel as proclaimed to us in our own meditation upon it, pondering it in our hearts. To say “I can remain a Christian without going to church” (that is, without a preached gospel) is thus to fall into the same trap that Luther ascribes to the shepherds. If even Mary “was in need of preaching”, then how much more are we.

The image used in this post is a very jolly Ukrainian icon from the late 17th century

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