Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

This is what I hurriedly put together yesterday for our newsletter. It's not like I don't know we put out a newsletter but I always seem to leave it to the last minute.

God comes down. Christ arrives. He enters creation as every human ever has. It's a common thing. It happens all the time. But anyone who has ever given birth, or been present at the birth of a child, knows that there's nothing common about it. But this birth is even more uncommon because here is God.

But this baby is still a baby. He's born in a stable. He's laid in a manger. And who on this earth knows that there's anything special about this child? Mary knows, and Joseph, those who heard and believed the promises. And I know, and you. By faith we are present at the birth of our Lord and Saviour.

Tradition tells us that Mary was a very young mother. Finding no room in the village inn they are forced to bed down in a stable. Joseph scoops up some clean straw and makes a bed for Mary, as comfortable a bed as he can, stretching out a blanket for her to lay on. The time comes for her to deliver her child. The sounds and the pain of giving birth are the same as for any child. Joseph with his rough, thick carpenters hands becomes the midwife.

The pain of giving life ebbs and flows for Mary and suddenly there is release. Joseph's breathing checks in his throat as tears come to his eyes. He wipes baby Jesus clean and gives him to his mother. She wraps the swaddling cloths around his body as she kisses his face. She is tired. Jesus is tired. She lays him on clean straw using a rough feeding trough for a cradle. She strokes his cheek with the back of one finger. Then she lays back down, closes her eyes, and sleeps.

It's easy to romanticize the scene. The nativity scenes that we set up in our homes and churches are usually very beautiful but probably not very realistic. What would the situation be like in our day?

A young couple arrives in town. They don't have much money. The motel they could afford has the NO VACANCY sign lit. They ask if there's any place they might stay. The only option is a corner of the parking garage. The husband finds some cardboard boxes and old sheets of plywood in the alley that he props up to give them some privacy. The wife is pregnant and goes into labour. They don't know where the hospital is, and it's too late anyway. The baby is born in the parking garage. The father takes his best white shirt out of his suitcase to wrap up the newborn baby. They lay him in a cardboard box, pillowed by some towels. Mother and child fall asleep while father stays up through the night protecting them.

It's not quite the sanitized picture of our manger scenes and children's storybooks. But it might not be far from the mark. The cantata that the choir will sing on Christmas Eve includes a piece titled "No Candle Was There." No candle was there and no fire, in the stable where Jesus was born, in the stall where our Savour was laid ‘til the rosy red breaking of morn; for the Christchild and Saviour no light, and never a candle to burn.

This is how our God came down. He didn't tear open the sky and reveal his splendour and might. That would have likely been terrifying. Instead he appeared as a baby, a poor baby at that, and was laid in a manger. It was hardly an auspicious beginning. But this baby boy came to save the world, to liberate us and establish everlasting justice and mercy. Angels sang. All of creation rejoiced. Lowly shepherds were the first to hear the news. In this baby the creator of the universe was present. And Mary and Joseph named him Jesus meaning "the one who saves."

And now we gather each Christmas to celebrate. We pull out all the stops, ring the chimes, sing at the top of our voices. Because the one who came down all those years ago still comes down. We remember, and we give thanks. We join the song of the angels. And we witness again the miracle of grace that slept on a bed of straw in a lowly manger, and we pray for that same heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.

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