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).