Monday, December 20, 2010
First Christmas - Who Noticed?
The candle shines on the roof of the stable, defining its shape by the pattern of light and shadow. It misses the figures within, though looking carefully I see that they are there, the very dimmest of forms. And thus looking, my mind travels back in time, and questions come: Who saw the starshine then? Who saw within? Who saw, in the rush and bustle of Caesar's Census? Who sees today, in the rush and bustle of holiday preparation?
Shepherds saw and understood when, in the silence of their watch, the very air vibrated with song, and amidst their fears a powerful voice sent them running to see for themselves what God had done. Wise men from Persia - pagan astrologers, actually - saw and understood the rising of the star, and set out on a great journey to offer homage.
How many others heard faint strains of the angel chorus, or saw the star rising, but were too world-weary to follow? How many had cultivated a cynicism that kept them at home, telling themselves, “The world is as it has always been.” “There is no new thing under the sun.” “As it is, so the world shall always be.” With those, and similar sentiments, they kept intact their self-defenses against a wonder that could change their lives.
What irony. The heavens declare the glory of God - the very stars announce the coming of the King - and we, in our age employ the same cynicism, defending ourselves from possible disappointment, finding ever-new ways to deny these happenings. There even arises a breed of scholars who decide the whole thing is a misunderstanding of a novel written by St. Paul!
And so some among us make an allegory of Christ's birth, a pretty story, a magical fable, and in so doing we shield ourselves from its power, preferring the disillusionment we know so well to the wonder we have never felt.
And yet, there was a time when Christ was born. And unless we truly believe that cynical manipulators made it all up, liars who were willing to die rather than change their story, we have a record telling us that the mother of Jesus remembered and pondered, and years later told her story to those who had known him as a man: who followed him through the fields and towns of Galilee; then on to Jerusalem; who abandoned him in his hour of trial, and fled at his crucifixion; who, amazed, and at first unbelieving, finally rejoiced in his resurrection and were filled with power on Pentecost.
They had no reason to make up this story - they already believed in his resurrection and were filled with a Spirit that changed their lives. They were already willing to die rather than deny him. They never used the story of his birth to persuade converts; indeed, most of them appear not to have known the story at all.
But to some who never asked, an older Mary told her story of simplicity and wonder, a mixture of soaring ecstasy and homely detail - just the sort of odd mixture that has the ring of truth. Her memory had a power of its own, to lift up the ordinary, to impart dignity to the humble, and to shape the hearts of all who would allow it to work in their lives.
What did the world see on that night so long ago? Probably very little, for the world was busy with its own affairs, and the self-important of that time had their preoccupations, just as they do today. But to certain witnesses: rough-living shepherds, wandering wise men, an old man and an old woman and, yes, to a paranoid king and his troubled court the world changed that night, inspiring joy in some, terror in others, and setting the stage for a drama in which humanity's primal fears find healing, and deepest hopes find fulfillment.
O come, let us adore him; O come, let us adore him; O come, let us adore him: Christ the Lord.
Howard MacMullen. ©2010