This month, this song is haunting me.
No one believes me, no one believes me
They shake their heads and say
“What good comes from Bethlehem?”
I know what I saw, I know what I saw
And it was just like they said
Just like they said it would be
Wrapped in a cloth, laid in a manger
Years later I walked by this place
I know this place
The roof caved in, but I know this place
Cause I ran the whole way
And it was just like they said
We get one glimpse of the shepherds. We don’t know their names or if they were friends or how many there were. We don’t know anything about them before or after. They are minding their own business and suddenly the sky is on fire and they’re running and they see this baby, just like the angels said. And then it’s over.
Did they go back to the hillside? Did one stay behind to guard the sheep? Did he regret it until he died? If not, were the sheep still there when everyone returned? And how do you move on from something like that? We aren’t told any of these details, the practical or the profound. There’s just that one moment that burns white hot and then a life of normal which probably seemed pretty dim.
If you used to read this blog you know I often posted T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” on Epiphany.
And all this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
What happened to the wise men after they left that small house and the toddler inside? What did they think about when they woke up, before words? What crossed their minds as they tried to sleep?
We don’t know.
I appreciate these perspectives because at this time of year there’s a lot of sentimentalism about the Christmas story. The cute baby Jesus, the candlelit stable, peace and snow and pumpkin spice. It’s easy to forget the first Christmas was disruptive and disturbing.
It was disruptive and disturbing for the shepherds who encountered the heavenly host and the baby and then never saw either one again. For the wise men who came face to face with a real king and were left to figure out what that meant. For a teenage girl who’d maybe never even kissed a man and now had to deliver a baby. For Joseph who had to marry a pregnant girl and be stepdad to the Savior of the world. For both of them facing the whispers of their neighbors, having to leave their families behind, becoming refugees on the run. For the mothers of Bethlehem who lost their baby boys. Read that one again. Those mothers buried little ones who were old enough to toddle around and talk in funny little broken sentences and blow kisses.
And it was disruptive and disturbing for Jesus himself, the Word who became a baby unable to talk.
Christmas is actually pretty brutal, in what it asked physically and emotionally of everyone involved. And I don’t want to take away your candles and carols and all the things that make this season special. But for me, reflecting on these stories this year, Christmas is a call to be brave.
It’s a reminder that following God usually means doing hard things, and that God being with us doesn’t take away the difficulties and in fact just might add more. Emmanuel exploded into our world and there was emotional shrapnel. The Bible seems to imply it’s worth it.
None of us had quite the year we planned this year, and some of us had NOT AT ALL the year we wanted. I know people who lost jobs, lost spouses, lost friends, or lost their health. (Others were hashtagblessed which just means wait your turn.) But that doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t here, and the danger of sentimentalizing the Christmas story is thinking that something’s wrong if you’re not alright. The angels announced peace on earth to the shepherds immediately after scaring the snot out of them. The combination seems right, somehow. If this really was the moment in history a supernatural being invaded the natural world, a touch of mortal terror seems just as appropriate as comfort and joy.
So if you’re not sure how to understand what you’re experiencing, or it’s not clear what’s next, or the next step seems impossible, or you are deeply grieving, or you feel unsettled or uneasy or unprepared…….