In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of God stood before them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Holy One. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which God has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are times of memory, of remembering, of pondering those things in our hearts. It’s a bittersweet time, when we remember and miss members of our family and friends who are no longer part of our celebrations through death, divorce, a move—the inevitable changes of life. And yet those memories sustain us; it is through those memories that we truly keep those people, places, times in our lives. Some of our memories are sad or angry, coloured by pain or betrayal; we choose to let go of the painful memories, to free ourselves of that grief. We don’t lose the memories, but we lose the pain. By remembering the times and people and places no longer in our lives, we help keep them alive.
When “the last surviving” person who participated in an historic event dies, it is news because we no longer have a living memory on earth of that event—the last survivor of the American Civil War, for example, or of the Shackleton expedition, or—someday—the last member of the Beatles, or the last WWII soldier.
There’s something vital about memory, and so many things can provoke it. The other day I was browsing a gift shop, picked up a lavender sachet—and was instantly in my grandmother’s arms. She loved lavender. The sight of a certain Christmas cookie my family makes brings me back to the family kitchen, learning to bake those cookies—the sounds of the record player—that’s a forerunner to the CD player and MP3 player, to you young ones—my sisters, the tree, our dog—all come back very vividly.
I think one of the most interesting links for memory is between music and words in song. If I am trying to remember the words to a song, the easiest way is to sing it. There is a connection, a neurological connection, in our brain, between music and words. They are intimately connected and when you learn one in association with the other, it can be very difficult to disconnect them. I first learned the words in the passage John read as part of Handel’s Messiah—and now when I read them, I hear that stirring music in my head—and it is difficult for me to not sing them!
Memory is at the heart of all we do in worship. We remember in an individual sense—the Prayer Jesus Taught Us—the Lord’s Prayer—the creeds, many of the hymns. But we also remember in a larger sense—as a congregation, a community—and we also remember as a church. We remember. The Hebrew tradition is full of acts of memory—the histories, the retelling of the exodus story every year at Passover, the reminder to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Paul tells his readers to remember all that they have learned. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
These memories give shape and purpose to our lives—we remember, and so we name children after family and friends who have died; we tell stories of Great-Aunt Doris, we hold All Saints services, AIDS memorial services, we walk in the Relay for Life, we keep the Sabbath day, we sing Christmas carols, we take bread and we remember.
Remember this Christmas season—remember what you have heard tonight—how Mary and Joseph travelled to a crowded city, managed to find a sheltered place for Mary to give birth, and were welcomed by the locals, the shepherds, who listened to the angels and remembered what they were told; remember the joy and hope, remember. Remember what we do tonight—light candles to drive away darkness, sing songs of promises fulfilled, share in the presence of those we love and those we do not even know, share the feast of God at God’s own table. Treasure all these things, and keep them in your hearts. In all God’s names, amen.