When [the shepherds] had seen [the baby], they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.Luke 2:17-19
Mary pondered all the things. I love this little bit in Luke 2. In the blaze and rush of the travelling and the registering and the birth and the angels and the shepherds (whose feet never seem to stop moving), Mary ponders.
The Greek word for ponder (sumballo) is used four other times in the New Testament. All five times, it comes from Luke’s pen. And in all the cases except for this one, sumballo refers to at least two people meeting to confront each other or have a conversation. Kings sumballo each other in battle (Luke 14:31). Elders, experts of the law, and priests sumballo with one another as they try to figure out what to do with Peter and John (Acts 4:15). Epicurean and Stoic philosophers sumballo with Paul when he is in Athens (Acts 17:18).
Mary’s sumballo is private and internal. She treasures up all the things that are happening and she sumballos them in her heart. All the things live in the space inside her, and maybe they confront each other and have conversations there.
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book Sacred Fire (I’m making no apologies for returning to this book over and over again in my blogs!), reminds us that though the gospel of Luke was written in Greek, when Mary ponders, she does so as a young Hebrew woman. Our Greek notion of pondering means to think really hard about something until we’ve thought it all through, and maybe even figured it all out. But, Rolheiser writes,
this would be what the word would mean had the Gospels been written by Aristotle. But the Gospels, while written in Greek, are Hebrew thought, and there, pondering has a different, more existential connotation. Simply put, to ponder, in the Hebrew sense, meant to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind, knowing that whatever energies we do not transform we will transmit.
Rolheiser traces the pondering work of Mary to the cross of her son (who did his own holding, carrying and transforming in his life and death… but back to Mary). When Mary was at the cross, she did not wail or fall down prostrate on the ground. She did not even speak. Instead, we simply read that she stood (John 19:25). She stood there near the cross. And in her standing she was strong. Rolheiser puts these words in Standing and Pondering Mary’s mouth:
Today, I can’t stop the crucifixion; nobody can. Sometimes darkness will have its hour. But I can stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, and heartlessness that caused it—by refusing to give it back in kind, by transforming negativity rather than retransmitting it, by swallowing hard, in silence, and eating the bitterness rather than giving it back in kind.
Of course, there are all sorts of important caveats to be made here. There are times to wail and times to speak and times to protest. There are also seasons when we need to ponder in the Greekiest of ways – thinking something through until it’s all been figured out. But as the world continues to fret and quake, as the coronavirus and its variants roll like the billows of the sea, I wonder about what it looks like to ponder in the Hebrewiest ways – holding, carrying, and transforming the tension around us.
I think of my husband. Tim is a numbers guy. He knows all the stats of the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team backwards and forwards. (They’ve just been ranked #12 in the country. I asked him what his thoughts were on that number. He had so many thoughts.) He loves to play online backgammon, and he knows the probabilities behind every roll. And in the evenings, he checks the Covid numbers for our city and the cities of our loved ones and does some math to make direct comparisons. At night, he ponders Covid in a Greeky way.
But during the day, he goes to the hospital where he is a chaplain.
Tim spends time at nurse’s stations, where staff look at him with exhausted eyes and wonder how they’re going to make it through their shift. He enters rooms of people who have Covid, or who are being isolated because they might have Covid, or who are very sick and can’t see the people they love because of Covid restrictions and protocols. He listens to their stories, looks them in the eyes, and sometimes even wipes their tears and noses.
He ponders Covid. In the Hebrew way.
He holds, carries, and transforms the tension into empathy and love.
It’s heavy work. The English word, ponder, is connected to French and Latin words that mean to weigh or weight. Pondering is heavy work. Pounds and pounds of it. But my husband is strong, for every day, he is held and carried and transformed by the Son of God. Who is also the son of Mary. Mary– the one who treasured up all the things and pondered them in her heart.