Merry Christmas, dear reader. May you find your heart’s desire in the stable tonight. Although we may stammer before such a Mystery, we are grateful for the writers who have bravely attempted to put it into words. One of my favorites is Frederick Buechner, who departed this life last summer on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Here is what he preached to students many years ago:
The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.
For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that. God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon. It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering that we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves. Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.
Buechner’s complete sermon was published in The Hungering Dark, and later in Secrets in the Dark. You can also find it here.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty, Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table, To sit the midst of Trinal Unity, He laid aside, and here with us to be, Forsook the courts of everlasting day, And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
— John Milton, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”
What on earth happened last night—at that little stable on the edge of town? It was all so strange, so unbelievable. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time and it was all just a dream.
There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.
And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling beside her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.
I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.
And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? Part of me hopes it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I have no idea what happens next. But I have to admit I’m a little nervous about where all this is going to take me.[i]
That’s how I imagine the “morning after” speech of a Bethlehem shepherd. After such a vision, he’s intoxicated by wonder, struggling to make sense of it, and feeling both curious and anxious about what happens now, after this wondrous birth. What will happen now—to me, to you, to the whole wide world? A change gonna come, yes it will.[ii] Yes it will, because what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.
And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1-14).
In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the confines of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
What a fantastic thought: God wants to be with us—not just love us at a distance but to be intimate with us. Joy to the world, the Lord is come … let every heart prepare him room. But perhaps we have some doubts about our capacity to receive such a guest.
I’ve been reading a couple of 17th-century poets who expressed their own doubts our capacity to host divinity. Matthew Hale (1609-1676) in a poem titled “Christmas Day” (1659), said:
I have a room ‘Tis poor, but ‘tis my best, if thou wilt come Within so small a cell, where I would fain [willingly] Mine and the world’s Redeemer entertain …
Here he’s speaking about his heart as the place he would entertain the Redeemer. He goes on to describe sweeping up the dust and cleaning up the mess, just as we would if we expected an important houseguest. The poet even attempts to wash this “room”—with his own penitent tears.
And when ‘tis swept and washed, I then will go, And with Thy leave, I’ll fetch some flowers that grow In Thine own garden [i.e., the flowers of faith and love]; With those I’ll dress it up … yet when my best Is done, the room’s [still] not fit for such a Guest.
Well, if we can’t make our hearts fit dwellings to house the divine, who can? Only God can make us so:
Thy presence, Lord, alone Will make a stall a court, a cratch [manger] a throne.
The poet/priest George Herbert, in his own “Christmas” poem (1633), expresses the same need for divine assistance:
O thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Herbert’s poetry is always resonant with Scriptural references. “Beasts” recalls Psalm 49:12—prideful humans are like “the beasts that perish”—while “a stranger” evokes Ephesians 2:12—without Christ, we remain “strangers to the covenants of promise.”
Then Herbert, like Hale, calls upon God as the only one who can complete his moral and spiritual remodeling project:
Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
“Rack” is another word for a manger, but it can also mean an instrument of torture, suggesting the cross. In other words, the first time Christ came, humanity provided him the cross and the grave. The poet prays that next time Christ comes to us, we may give him better lodging—a newly furnished soul, adorned with God’s grace.
Both of these poets were saying: Let every heart prepare him room. But they were also confessing that such preparation is more than we can do by ourselves. However, with God’s help, we may yet become fit lodging for divine presence.
In the 20th century, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”
Merton wrote this after a life-changing experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville. As he was studying all the faces of the milling crowd, he suddenly felt an overwhelming love for all of them, even though they were all strangers to him. It was like what the shepherds experienced in the Bethlehem stable, where, as W. H. Auden said in his own Christmas poem, “everything became a You and nothing was an It.” [iii] Merton would later put his street-corner epiphany at into words.
“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.
“I have the immense joy of being [a human person], a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [iv]
Just so, on that wondrous Christmas night in Bethlehem, our human nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We are still works in progress no doubt, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory” (II Cor. 3:18).
A thousand years later, St. Symeon the New Theologian echoed Paul’s luminous text: “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”
They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness. Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And even when we turn away from the Light, the Light comes looking for us. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.
What happens in Bethlehem does not stay in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future. And Christmas Day is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey deeper and deeper into God. And whether we know it or not, as we walk that pilgrim road, we are all shining like the sun.
As we used to say back in the day, “Can you dig it?” Can you embrace the wonder of the holy birth: the immensity of heaven cloistered in one small room, be it the Virgin’s womb, the Bethlehem stable, the human heart, or whatever place you’re in right now? Can you embrace the wonder? Will you?
The world wants you to believe far less. But why would you want to do so?
In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but she finds herself touched by a carol they are singing:
Christians, awake, salute the happy morn Whereon the Savior of the world was born; Rise to adore the mystery of love, Which hosts of angels chanted from above.
The young woman leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to divine love, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[v]
[i] It’s a risky thing to follow Jesus. At the end of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that “someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21:18).
[ii] Sam Cooke’s prophetic cry for social transformation was influenced by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke said the song came to it in a dream. Listen to it and imagine a shepherd singing it after the Nativity: https://youtu.be/fPr3yvkHYsE
[iii] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The line is from the Narrator’s concluding speech. Auden’s marvelous poetic dramatization of the Nativity, written during the dark days of World War II, is imbued with hope. Alan Jacobs’ helpful annotated edition is highly recommended (Princeton University Press, 2015).
[iv] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966).
[v] Charles Williams’ Christmas novel is The Greater Trumps (1932).
No time for words this week, only images. I’ve been editing the parish Christmas pageant as well as our Christmas Eve liturgy stream. With COVID cautions in place, I sent a shot list to the parents, who sent me back wonderful clips of their little angels, shepherds and Holy Family, all shot in their bubbles as if interacting with characters who weren’t there. The joy and beauty they brought to the Nativity story has been a great Christmas gift to me in this strangest of Christmastides, and I pass it on to you. Merry Christmas, dear reader! May this holy season take you ever deeper into the Mystery of God-with-us.
Christmas is a poetic argument against the prosaic flattening of the world into a place without depth or mystery. For a few days or weeks, it interrupts the social imaginary where God is absent, ignored, or simply unthinkable, inviting us to consider––and adore––the mystery of a world saturated with the divine.
“This is the irrational season,” says Madeleine L’Engle, “when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason / there’d have been no room for the child.”
The Feast of the Incarnation not only accepts paradox, it revels in it:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut up in a span! Summer in winter, day in night! Heaven in earth, and God in man! Great little One! whose all-embracing birth Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
–– Richard Crashaw, “In the Holy Nativity of our Lord” (17th century)
Whether you spend the Twelve Days pondering these things in your heart, or caroling the wonders of everything heard and seen in the stable of new birth, may you be filled with peace, blessing, and endless praise.
But enough prose. Here is some of my favorite poetry for the “irrational season.” These poems may all be found in Sarah Arthur’s marvelous and indispensable collection, Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
Salvation to all that will is nigh; That All, which always is all everywhere, Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear, Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die, Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie In prison, in thy womb; and though He there Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear, Taken from thence, flesh which death’s force may try. Ere by the spheres time was created, thou Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother; Whom thou conceiv’st, conceived; yea, thou art now Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother; Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb.
–– John Donne, “Annunciation” (17th century)
It wasn’t that long ago that he’d spoken these stars into being and this woman’s life was just a thought in his mind. He’d smiled down on her birth and entered her name in her pages perhaps with an asterisk denoting plans too sacred to be spoken but pondered in his heart. Now, newborn, in wide-eyed wonder he gazes up at his creation. His hand that hurled the world holds tight his mother’s finger. Holy light spills across her face and she weeps silently wondering tears to know she holds the One who has so long held her.
–– Joan Rae Mills, “Mary” (21st century)
. . . Now I in him surrender to the crush and cry of birth. Because eternity was closeted in time he is my open door to forever. From his imprisonment my freedoms grow, find wings. Part of his body, I transcend this flesh. From his sweet silence my mouth sings. Out of his dark I glow. My life, as his, slips through death’s mesh, time’s bars, j oins hands with heaven, speaks with stars.
Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)
Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”
In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.
Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.
But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!
“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:
Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.
Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:
I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…
I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.
It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.
The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”
A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.