But on that night—that night, they were suddenly confronted by some sort of other-worldly being, glowing with such an intensity and emanating with such light that it illuminated the ground all around them. The shepherds fell back in terror.
What could these men have been thinking at that moment? They must have feared for their lives!
“Take the sheep! Take everything! Just leave us alone!”
But that was not the purpose of this “alien.” This was an angel of the Lord who had come with news, good news—great news!
“A Savior has been born to you, Christ the Lord!”
But then, just as the fears of the shepherds had been somewhat allayed, and as they were contemplating the words of the angel, at the announcement of the birth of the Savior, a great multitude of heavenly beings suddenly appeared along with the one who had made the announcement. This multitude sang such a song of praise to God that the whole countryside reverberated with their music.
Then, when the angels' song of praise was completed, almost as quickly as they appeared, they departed. The angels ascended back into heaven.
The shepherds must have stood in silent shock for some good long moments, wondering about what had just occurred—and if it indeed had occurred. Perhaps they imagined it.
Finally one spoke: “Did… you see… what I saw?”
Then another: “I was hoping someone else would speak first. I was afraid I was going mad.”
After that, everyone began speaking at once. “Did you see these hills, how they were covered with all the angels singing?”
“What about how they shone with light that illuminated the entire pasture?”
“I thought I might go blind!”
“Have you ever heard such beautiful singing? The air was filled with their song!”
Then, as the shepherds began to again get their feet back on the ground, they remembered the purpose of it all. It was the message of the first angel: “A Child had been born in Bethlehem—the Christ child, the Savior.”
The shepherds now excitedly began speaking to one another. “Let’s go! Let’s go into Bethlehem and find the baby so that we can worship Him. The messenger angel told us that we could find him in a manger and wrapped in swaddling cloths.”
This was perhaps not much to go on, but Bethlehem was a small village, and the shepherds knew where to find the mangers. Despite the fact that the village was now full of travelers from out of town, they found their way to the little manger of the inn where the baby Christ Child lay.
Everywhere they had gone in their search for the baby Jesus, the shepherds told the people what they had seen and heard. Then, once at the manger, they told these same things to Mary and to Joseph. The news was spreading quickly throughout the entire village.
All were amazed. There was great excitement in the air! The Messiah had come to them, born in their little village of Bethlehem, just as the prophet had predicted!
As Mary Sat in the Stable
It is difficult for us to image the level of excitement that night and what everyone was saying and feeling. No one could stop talking about it, and all were eager to hear what others said, and what the shepherds had seen.
And what do we read about Mary during all of this enthusiastic excitement?
“Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Mary was not among those who could not stop talking about the events. Granted, she was probably tired, but I do not think it was in the character of Mary to be given to giddy excitement and telling everyone about every detail of her life. I think Mary was a quiet young woman who was instead given to contemplation—to pondering, just as the verse tells us.
The First Encounter
Consider Mary’s reaction to her own visit by an angel, some nine months previous to this night in Bethlehem. Similar to the experience of the shepherds, the angel suddenly appeared to Mary:
“Greetings,” said the angel, “You who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Notice Mary’s response to this greeting. As far as we know, she said nothing at all. Instead of immediately taking this news that she was highly favored, and that the Lord was with her as an honor, or even an assurance, she was troubled. She said nothing, but wondered what kind of greeting this was. She pondered the words of the angel.
The angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end!”
Certainly this was good news! In this, Mary could have felt greatly honored! Among all the women of Judah, she, a young and unknown teenager of low social standards, was chosen by God Most High to bear the Messiah!
What did Mary do at this great news? First I will tell you what she did not do. She did not rush to post it on her facebook page. Instead of that, Mary quietly considered the practicalities of this pregnancy.
“How can this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel told her how this was to happen: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Mary, quietly and in a calm voice responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me according to your word.”
The Greeting of Elizabeth
But the angel had also told Mary that her relative Elizabeth had already conceived a son, even though Elizabeth was already quite old—past the normal age of pregnancy. In all of her years of marriage, Elizabeth had never given birth to a child, but despite this, she was now already in her sixth month.
“No word from God will ever fail,” the angel had told Mary just before he left her.
Mary did not leave immediately, but I think it must not have been after many days that she got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah where Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her own now six-month old baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as the text tells us.
Elizabeth, I think, was of a more animated personality. In a loud voice she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
No one had told her of Mary’s pregnancy. Mary had not let it be known. But the Spirit of the Lord had told Elizabeth everything. At that moment she knew of Mary, and she knew of the coming of the Messiah.
“And why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth asked. “For as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord’s word to her will be fulfilled.”
That is actually all that we know of Mary’s nine months’ pregnancy, except for the fact that an angel had also told her fiancé about Mary’s condition and that the baby growing within her womb was of the Holy Spirit. He told him also that this One who was to be born was the Messiah, the One who would save the people from their sins.
It is as the prophet had written centuries earlier: “Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel, (which means, “God with us).”
Indeed, all that we hear of Mary is the song that she wrote. It is found in the first chapter of the book of Luke.
On Christmas day many years ago, I rewrote this song. I read Mary’s own words and put her words into my own. Then after her song, I also added my own response.
First, we hear from Mary. It is my free transliteration:
There are no words that I can speak
In any language of man,
That can express my thoughts unique,
And say what no tongue can.
It is my soul that will give voice –
My spirit speaks forth my mind.
It is through these I will rejoice
And sing to all mankind.
God has remembered me—His maid,
Though in humility I dwell.
To Him I looked, I saw, I prayed,
And now His majesty I tell.
Great and holy is His name.
His arm does mighty deeds.
To our fathers He also came,
And the hungry ones He feeds.
And those, like me, His humble ones,
He has chosen to exalt.
Human rule becomes undone,
Dispersed by prideful faults.
Generations will call me blessed
For truly blessed I am.
But it is His works that I confess
With the faith of Abraham.
Those were Mary’s thoughts. I will include my response to her song in a minute or two.
In Bethlehem on that Night
On the night when Jesus was born, the entire village of Bethlehem was alive with activity. Even before the excitement of the shepherds, the town was busy. It was the time of the census, and every inn was filled, every shop actively selling their wares. The streets were full of people meeting each other and seeing relatives that they perhaps had not seen in years.
And then, when the news of the shepherds got out, the excitement level rose to heights that the sleepy little village had never before known! The houses and shops, and the streets and the inns were alive with people talking of the news.
“Have you heard what the shepherds were saying?”
“The Messiah, right in this humble little village, and to a poor young woman!”
“Well, there is that prophecy of the prophet Micah…”
“Yes, but in a dirty old stable? Surely a king would not be born in such a humble place!”
“But do you not remember what the prophet Zechariah wrote? The Messiah would be a humble man!”
At the Stable on that Night
But next to the manger where this Promised One lay, Mary pondered. She sat quietly, meditating on all that had happened over the past nine months. She contemplated the little baby in front of her, and held him to her breast. She thought about the future. What did it hold for the both of them? What would become of her little child?
She stroked his tiny head. This baby is the Messiah. He is the King. He will save our people from our sins.
Mary probably did not know that the soft forehead that she kissed would one day be pierced by a crown of thorns. She probably did not know that the tiny hands and feet of her baby would one day be empaled by cruel nails. Had she known, perhaps she could not have endured the thought.
When it seemed the whole world was buzzing in excitement, Mary sat quietly and pondered. She pondered all that had happened, was even at that moment happening, and what would happen in the future.
Christmas in the modern age usually is buzzing with excitement. Like Bethlehem during the census, all the hotels are occupied, the streets and skies are busy, the shops are full, and families excitedly reunite with relatives that they perhaps have not seen in months and maybe even years.
People are braving ice-covered roads and white-out conditions in the attempt to make it to their destination. The airports are packed with people standing in line and trying to book another flight to replace the previous one that was canceled.
We look at the dangerous weather as a hinderance and a nuisance. It is keeping us from our activities and schedules. We worry and fret.
But perhaps all of this is a blessing instead of an annoyance. Perhaps this is the Christmas when, like Mary, we can sit peacefully—quietly pondering the meaning of all that happened with the birth of Jesus Christ. We can think of the messages of the angels, and meditate on what the prophets had foretold and what the apostles later said about Him.
I did not finish reading that poem that I wrote years ago. The first part was a rewriting of what the Bible calls “Mary’s Song.” But there is a second part to the poem. This is my grateful response to what Mary said:
Sweet virgin mother Mary,
This one of whom you sing,
That little one you carry,
He is my Lord and King!
He may seem so small and meek,
His tired little head will nod.
But when you kiss that chubby cheek,
You kiss the very face of God!
He is the stalwart Lion.
He is the Paschal Lamb.
The mighty God of Zion,
He is the great I AM!
This Christmas sit quietly and ponder. Meditate on what the birth of the Son of God actually means. Seek and contemplate what your own response will be.