“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Luke 2:9
Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I order a lot of books online. I often order used books because you can find inexpensive copies that are still in great condition. One thing about used books is that they sometimes arrive with hints of their former life – an inscription in the front or a note scribbled in the margins. Last week I received a used copy of a poetry collection that I had ordered a long time ago. It had traveled all the way from a used bookstore in England, and inside the front cover I found, of all things, a Christmas card. It does not include the recipient’s name. There’s not even a date on the card. Only this note – “This has been such a sad year – may the next one bring more joy, peace and light breaking through. Much love, the Meeths.”
I wish I knew more of the story. I wonder what made it such a sad year for this person. I wonder how the card ended up in the pages of the book or how the book found its way to the bookstore. I won’t ever know the answers to those questions.
But I do know this. The card captures something that we all recognize as true. Our lives contain many experiences and emotions, with joy and sorrow intertwined like the red and white ribbons of a candy cane. There’s so much that we can neither predict nor control, which can bring us delightful surprises or keep us awake at 2:00 in the morning.
Consider for a moment the characters in our Christmas story. The Emperor thinks he’s in control of everything, not realizing that by requiring Joseph to come to Bethlehem for the registration, the Emperor is actually helping to fulfill the prophecy that the messiah would be born in this city of David. Most of us, like the Emperor, have far less control than we think.
Joseph, meanwhile, is trying to do what God has told him in a dream he must do – stay with Mary and care for this child who will save the people from their sins. I can’t imagine what Joseph must be feeling as they enter Bethlehem. Panic? Resolve? An occasional flicker of doubt about where this baby came from? Still, he finds the shelter. He watches over Mary and the baby. Whatever doubts he might possess, he acts in spite of them.
Mary has given herself over to God’s purpose many months before tonight’s events, but I bet she never imagined she’d be placing her newborn in a food trough for the animals. And that’s before all of these other strange people started showing up. No wonder she had a lot to ponder. Sometimes all we can do when we are overwhelmed is to pause and reflect on the divine mystery of it all.
I often think the shepherds come the closest to our own experience. They’re going about their lives, showing up for their jobs and tending to their responsibilities. Into that routine existence, in the midst of another long and boring night, an angel appears with the news of a holy birth. And before they’ve even caught their breath, there’s a sky full of angels singing glory to God.
I get that most of us have not encountered an angel chorus lately, but we know the whiplash turn from terror to wonder. We know how it feels when faith and fear are jumbled up together. We know what it’s like when all we can do is what the shepherds do – put one foot in front of the other, follow this curious and unsettling path that has opened in the middle of our ordinary lives, and see where it leads.
In the midst of confusion and uncertainty a baby is born. God finds this surprising way to enter the world. God continues to find surprising ways to show up in our lives, to save us in spite of all our best efforts to pretend that we don’t need saving. Maybe God shows up as a baby because a baby has a better chance of making us stop and recognize our own fragility. Our own need for the love that only God can give.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night.” It’s the song that I most associate with Christmas Eve, having grown up singing it much like we’ll do tonight, holding candles that illuminate the faces around us and make the shadows dance.
I love many things about “Silent Night,” but one of the things I love best is that it captures so many facets of the Christmas story – the silence and calm as Mary ponders, the shepherds quaking in fear and awe, the angels bursting forth in song, the light shining in the darkness.
You don’t have to feel any one emotion tonight. You don’t have to be any one way to be loved by the God who loves us so much that he enters the world as one of us.
The radiant beams from the holy face of the Christ child shine across the centuries. They shine again tonight, bringing light into the darkest corners of our lives. May the redeeming grace of the Christ child enfold you on this holy night and hold you in the days to come. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ