How Silently, How Silently, The Wondrous Gift is Given:
For Sunday December 28, 2008
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Isaiah 9:2–7 / 62:6–12 / 52:7–10
Psalm 96 / 97 / 98
Titus 2:11–14 / 3:4–7 / Hebrews 1:1–4, (5–12)
Luke 2:1–14, (15–20) / 2:(1–7), 8–20 / John 1:1–14
The British poet U.A. Fanthorpe (b. 1929) was the first woman nominated as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. I love how her poem BC:AD captures the unremarkable circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
Christians celebrate that ordinary night as the most extraordinary event in human history, for on that night "God was in Christ, reconciling the cosmos to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Nothing unusual was happening that night to break the tedium of human boredom. In the backwater municipality of Bethlehem, 1400 miles from the capital of Rome, government bureaucrats conducted a census in order to increase the tax revenues of Caesar Augustus (literally, "the exalted"). A few obscure shepherds stomped their feet to keep warm and gossiped to stay awake through the night shift. A mother birthed a baby. And on that ordinary night, Fanthorpe observes, a staggering paradox occured.
Among the everyday affairs of ordinary people, God became a man. Eternity invaded time. The sacred embraced the profane. Before yielded to After. God had spoken to humanity in many diverse ways, times, and places, but in Jesus He spoke a definitive word to us (Hebrews 1:1–4). In his human incarnation Jesus embodied a divine affirmation. It's the affirmation that God embraces all the world and everyone in it, and that He meets me in extraordinary and exceptional ways in all the unexceptional times and places of my ordinary life.
Luke locates the birth of Jesus in the context of normal human history, when Caesar Augustus ruled as emperor of Rome from 27 BC to AD 14. Even more mundane — and here I like to believe that Luke intended some sharp political parody, he suggests that a pagan government's bureaucratic decree initiated the sequence of events that redeemed humanity and the whole cosmos. God used this "exalted" earthly emperor's tax census as the occasion for the birth of the true King of kings and Lord of lords. But king Jesus entered the world in an unceremonious way, as a helpless baby born in a barn, in stark contrast to the pomp that characterized the Roman emperors back then or most heads of state today.
When Quirinius, the governor of Syria, enacted the decree of Augustus, Joseph and Mary complied. Even though Mary was far along in her pregnancy, they trekked 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register with the government. Soon after they arrived, Luke writes, "the time came" (2:6) for the most magical of all moments, the birth of a baby. Paul described this birth as "the fullness of time" when "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman," to redeem humanity (Galatians 4:4).
Although it's hard not to think of "angelic" kids in oversized bathrobes, and "shepherds" with towel turbans, what happened next was a combination of the commonplace and the cruel. As was customary, Joseph and Mary wrapped the newborn Jesus in strips of cloth. But was it not pitiless that the boarders in the guest rooms could not accommodate a pregnant teenager experiencing birth contractions? It's even more cruel if, as would have been normal, Joseph had sought housing among his extended family.
Dealt these harsh realities, Mary and Joseph "placed him in a manger," which is to say in a feeding trough used for animal fodder. A few months later, the young family escaped to pagan Egypt as displaced exiles when the government announced its plan of infanticide. Luke implies that the Jesus whom Christians worship as the Savior of humanity (2:11–12) entered our world as an outsider who was rejected by the insiders.
Jesus's first well-wishers were not the well-off, the connected, the powerful, or the wealthy, and certainly not state royalty. Rather, common laborers to whom God had spoken in the middle of the night worshipped Jesus. Given the rough and tumble context of his birth, these coarse shepherds were likely the only sorts of people who would have felt comfortable at Jesus's "manger." Whatever the shepherds saw or heard that night, Luke says they were "terrified."
But their terror turned to joy, and their joy turned to witness: "When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child" (2:17). From that day forward, the rumor mill hit overdrive and didn't stop for thirty-three years. "People were amazed," writes Luke. Just who was this child? What did all the strange events portend? Like every mother who has ever given birth, Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart," wondering what would become of her newborn son (2:19).
The Christian liturgical calendar observes "special" times of the year as "extraordinary" feasts (or fasts). These are times that punctuate exceptional moments in the rhythm of the year. The rest of the year is relegated to so-called "Ordinary Time." But the affirmation of the incarnation is that there is no such thing as ordinary time, ordinary place, or ordinary people. Nor is there any ordinary school, soccer team, or job. There is no ordinary marriage or friendship. The implications are endless. If the son of God gasped his first baby breaths while screaming in a feeding trough, if tax decrees by pagan emperors, and if ruddy shepherds working the night shift all played their role in the redemption of the cosmos, then no one and no thing is "ordinary."
The incarnation affirms that the most ordinary dimension of life can be the place of God's extraordinary saving activity. Recognizing this, suggests Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world's 100 million Anglicans, is the secret to living the entire liturgical year with a sense of God's presence. In our most mundane circumstances, "here we are daily, not necessarily attractive and saintly people, along with other not very attractive and saintly people, managing the plain prose of our everyday service, deciding daily to recognize the prose of ourselves and each other as material for something unimaginably greater — the Kingdom of God, the glory of the saints, reconciliation and wonder" (Where God Happens, 2005).
After all the office parties, after eating way too much food, after the kids return to college from their semester break, and after special worship services at church — all the special treasures of Christmas that we rightly enjoy without apology, after all of this we return on December 26 to so-called ordinary time. But even the monotony of the dullest winter day can be a place where God intervenes in exceptional ways. If we look and listen carefully, we realize that, like the shepherds, we too can walk "haphazard by starlight, straight into the kingdom of heaven."
To Journey with Jesus readers in 230 countries and territories around the world, IMMANUEL — "God is with us!"
For further reflection:
* What is your biggest challenge as a Christian at Christmas time?
* Why do we often think that God works in the exceptional rather than in the ordinary?
* What are the salient features of Luke's narrative of the birth of Jesus?
* For what person or situation in your life would you like a fuller "affirmation of the incarnation?"
Image credits: All four images are by Jan L. Richardson of the Wellspring Studio. Used by permission. See www.janrichardson.com/gallery.html. Be sure to visit Jan's Advent blog and The Painted Prayerbook.