The Quiet Light of Christmas

The Christmas tree stands quietly in the corner, its little lights pushing back the darkness, a silent memorial to a not-quite-silent night. The father was afraid, the mother in great pain, and the baby probably howled as babies do. They made sounds of distress and confusion, though we sing of comfort and joy.

This is the shock of Christmas, which remains a comfort and a scandal 2,000 years later.

It is shocking because, according to the story, this baby had a choice – to lay himself in Joseph’s hard hands, to plant himself the smallest seed in Mary’s womb, to burst frail and naked into a cold dark world.

Might God come gently? Allow himself to be overlooked and rejected because he so loves the world? Many hope not, for a loving God is still God, and no God is wanted here. They are done with Jesus as almighty Rome was done with Jesus. But Rome is long gone, and Jesus remains.

The light of Christmas is still pushing back the darkness, even here in America, where darkness grows. Even to us, a child is born, and to us, a son is given, calling across the ages that God is with us in our distress and confusion, that he came gently to offer us comfort and joy.

Perhaps we will welcome the Christ-child this year, amazed by the love and humility of God. Perhaps we will turn away. But this much is certain. When America has returned to dust as Rome returned to dust, Jesus will remain.

A Shepherd’s Story

I am the last man on earth to be telling this story – a ragged man who smells of sheep and earth and campfire. I would not tell it, except that it happened to me.

An hour ago, we were in the fields, throwing sticks on the fire and trying to stay warm. An hour ago, I don’t think I believed in angels. Well, I am warm now, and I know more about angels than most any man alive.

I was watching the stars when it burst into view, a towering monster of light with blazing eyes and a voice like a trumpet. I was terrified until I noticed the expression on his face and realized I could understand his words.

He was glad – glad with some gigantic joy, and soon there were hundreds of them – hopping about like excited children, shouting, and singing like their hearts were on fire.

I was still shaking, but the joy on their beautiful faces broke my heart. Whatever they were telling us, it was shaking them, too.

When they left, we stared into the suddenly dark and silent sky, breathed air that stirred in their wake and smelled like springtime, and the sea, and some strange incense, all mixed together.

For a minute, no one said anything. I trembled, but I was no longer afraid, maybe not even surprised. Somehow, I think I knew there was such beauty in the world – there was a place for it in your soul, just waiting. But I never expected to see it, had almost forgotten it was there.

We will find him in Bethlehem, they said – just over those hills – and so we run with our own gigantic joy; run so far that my lungs are on fire, just as my heart is on fire.

And now, still panting, I step into the dark barn, duck under the cobwebbed timber, and stop. Lamplight flickers over the drafty room. A man leans against the wall, and a woman leans against him. In front of them, a rickety feed trough, and there the child lies.

If I had not seen the angels, I would not understand what I feel right now, the sparks shooting through my arms and face as I step carefully over the straw and kneel before the manger. I would think I had lost my senses, not awakened a new one.

But somehow, my heart knows you, child. It knew there was someone like you in the world, though it did not know that it knew. To meet you is a remembering. To kneel here is a coming home. My heart burns like an angel, like a moth rushing toward light. I am only a shepherd, but I know I was made for you.

I take one more look as we turn to leave, shake my head as I step into the night. How strange that this is the story of God and that I, who smell of sheep and earth, am the one telling it.

I would not tell it, but this is where the angels sang. We are ragged people, but it was to us the Christ-child came.

—-

This story is a dramatization of events recorded in Luke 2.

Written for LIFE International, 2021.

Are We Done With Wonder?

In this season, dominated by the claim of an ancient miracle, I’m thinking of the book in which this claim is recorded. It is a strange book, tone-deaf to our modern sensibilities.

It used to be called ‘the good book’, which seems odd because it speaks with moral authority and it claims definite knowledge of God’s thoughts and intentions. In our culture, that’s considered a recipe for evil, not good.

And, of course, the book speaks of miracles – lots of miracles – which, to a culture steeped in Darwinian disbelief, sets it squarely in the realm of fairy tale.

Take, for example, another story from the book; the story of Jonah in the belly of a whale. This story reports – I grant – a highly unexpected turn of events. If you think that the whale found the Jonah thing hard to swallow, just imagine the modern reader. In his experience, people who enter fish don’t come out in one piece. His disbelief, he thinks, is reasonable; a product of his experience.

But another, less obvious factor also deserves consideration. What if the tables have somehow been turned; that what we record as experience is actually colored or filtered by our disbelief? What if, because of his presuppositions, the modern reader has given little thought to the world he lives in, to even the body that he lives in? Perhaps he is less qualified than he thinks to measure even his own story’s plausibility.

Is it a greater miracle that a whale should swallow a man or that such an unlikely creature as a whale should exist at all? Is it a greater wonder that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale or that the reader has spent 270 days in the belly of a giantess? Very likely, the reader has somehow forgotten that fact or – more to the point – he has forgotten the wonder of it.

He lives in a world perishing for lack of wonder. He moves through it with eyes cast down, focused on what is man-made and man-sized. He thinks the cell phone in his pocket is a miracle and the intricate dance of the solar system a monotonous routine.

He thinks he knows the difference between the natural and the supernatural, but perhaps he is mistaken. He thinks that if something happens once, it is a miracle; if it happens a thousand times it is not. He thinks that the repetition of something marvelous removes the marvel and cancels the need for explanation or gratitude or reflection. He is surrounded by wonders that he has lost the ability to see.

And so, this ancient book is, in his ears, no longer ‘good.’ And of this ancient miracle, he thinks, we should not speak its name, let alone allow a cow or manger to appear in public. He is done with wonder.

But wonder is not done with him. After fishing Jonah from the whale, God said to him, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The greatest wonder in this universe, the Christmas story that no one can suppress, is this: “he has come to seek and to save those who are lost.”

Ragged

I am the last man on earth to be telling this story – a ragged man who smells of sheep and earth and campfire. I would not tell it, except that it happened to me.

An hour ago, we were in the fields, throwing sticks on the fire and trying to stay warm. An hour ago, I don’t think I believed in angels. Well, I am warm now, and I know more about angels than most any man alive.

I was watching the stars when it burst into view, a towering monster of light with blazing eyes and a voice like a trumpet. I was terrified until I noticed the expression on his face and realized I could understand his words.

He was glad – glad with some gigantic joy, and soon there were hundreds of them – hopping about like excited children, shouting, and singing like their hearts were on fire.

I was still shaking, but the joy on their beautiful faces broke my heart. Whatever they were telling us, it was shaking them, too.

When they left, we stared into the suddenly dark and silent sky, breathed air that stirred in their wake and smelled like springtime, and the sea, and some strange incense, all mixed together.

For a minute, no one said anything. I trembled, but I was no longer afraid, maybe not even surprised. Somehow, I think I knew there was such beauty in the world – there was a place for it in your soul, just waiting. But I never expected to see it, had almost forgotten it was there.

We will find him in Bethlehem, they said – just over those hills – and so we run with our own gigantic joy; run so far that my lungs are on fire, just as my heart is on fire.

And now, still panting, I step into the dark barn, duck under the cobwebbed timber, and stop. Lamplight flickers over the drafty room. A man leans against the wall, and a woman leans against him. In front of them, a rickety feed trough, and there the child lies.

If I had not seen the angels, I would not understand what I feel right now, the sparks shooting through my arms and face as I step carefully over the straw and kneel before the manger. I would think I had lost my senses, not awakened a new one.

But somehow, my heart knows you, child. It knew there was someone like you in the world, though it did not know that it knew. To meet you is a remembering. To kneel here is a coming home. My heart burns like an angel, like a moth rushing toward light. I am only a shepherd, but I know I was made for you.

I take one more look as we turn to leave, shake my head as I step into the night. How strange that this is the story of God and that I, who smell of sheep and earth, am the one telling it.

I would not tell it, but this is where the angels sang. We are ragged people, but it was to us the Christ-child came.

—-

This story is a dramatization of events recorded in Luke 2.

Written for LIFE International, 2021.

The Gift the Child Was Giving

He’s lost a lot of blood already and can hardly see.  The pain is like a drug, blurring his mind.  He staggers on, eyes closed, remembering…

“It doesn’t have to be like this!” His friend was shouting at him, angry and frightened.  “You can do what you need to do without this suffering!” 

Another scene, a softer voice: “You’re very hungry, you know. Just turn this stone into food.  It won’t hurt anyone.”

He opens his swollen eyes, glances into the roaring sea of faces.  Many are laughing at him, jeering, a few weeping.  He sees his mother, mouth open, staring in shock and agony.  He stumbles, sways beneath the heavy beam, crashes to the pavement.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

No.  It has to be like this. 

Not just this – this day he had long feared – but all of it.  The years of loneliness.  The sorrow and temptation and weakness.  The knowing that it would someday end here, rejected by his own.  Hated.  Abandoned.  Unrecognized.

It had to be like this for him to say to earth what he had decided to say, to be for earth what he had decided to be. He would be inside what he was over, the aching, dangerous highwire of human experience.  The languid, contented simplicity of a creature with a full belly.  The searing anger and frustrations of human emotion, the frailty of a human brain, the bizarre tension of a soul within a body. 

He knew what it meant to come, and still he came, and for one night, at least, the suffering was still far off.  That night, there was only joy, for unto us a child was born. 

His birth was a beginning, but also an end – the end of a chapter that began in microscopic secrecy, in the merest speck inside one young woman: in one living cell with 46 human chromosomes.  The Son of Man was knit together as any human child is knit together.  He “became flesh” or – as enlightened people in our day say – a mere “clump of cells” and was eventually born in a gush of blood and water as he would later be proved dead in a gush of blood and water.

There is no dignity here, no self-preservation, no standing apart from the humanity he created.  His condescension was not condescending. 

The wonder of Christmas is not that there is a being so majestic as God, nor that there are beings so tattered as us, but that a bridge was built between the two and in a shape no one expected – the shape of a child who is God With Us.

It was the “With” that hurt.  He might easily have become God Among Us or God Above Us.  It didn’t have to be like this… unless he had come searching, not for subjects, but for his beloved.  Unless, by his suffering and condescension, he became “the firstborn among many brothers”, a living bridge “who has been tempted in every way – just as we are”, coming “to seek and to save that which was lost”.

That we are lost seems pretty clear these days, and it was to such people as us that Christmas came.  “A people living in darkness have seen a great light”.  Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds – they knew what a gift this child was.  And we know, perhaps better than they did, what a gift this child was giving.

After he has suffered,

he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,

and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53