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And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
And Herod sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Early in the year 2000 I had the privilege of being a part of a remarkable journey. I was in South Africa for the first half of that year doing field research for my dissertation on the truth and reconciliation process led by Desmond Tutu. I had carried out several months of interviews with apartheid’s advocates and victims, its enforcers and its survivors, with Africans and Afrikaners, with those orphaned by violence – sometimes from parts of themselves. I was completely enthralled with that broken and beautiful county. South Africa felt like a wounded limb weaving its tissues back together again with great pain and energy.
I paused the research to go on a canoe trip. It was on a remote section of the Orange River where it ran through a desert mountain range forming the border with Namibia. The trip was remarkable because it would have been impossible, indeed illegal, only a few years earlier. Our party of about a dozen people included Blacks and Whites, mixed race people, and a sprinkling of foreigners like me. We were co-led by Black and White guides. There was a mixed-race couple. We were going to pass through very harsh, very remote terrain and wrestle with rapids that I was pretty sure were beyond my skills. Camping for a couple days at our launch site to pack and train, our little community became, at least in my eyes, an encapsulation of the whole nation: a diverse group with a common purpose that would have to bind together to face the dangers ahead. As preachers are wont to do, I began to develop in my head a romantic narrative about our group and our adventure.
In the coming days the romance was sorely tested. We struggled with sunburn and sickness, scorpions and serpents. But mostly we struggled with the river. Our guides had paddled this stretch of the Orange River many times but never this river. You see, Southern Africa had been hit with great flooding (especially in Mozambique – you may remember the terrible images from the news) and the volume of water making its way to the sea had totally changed the river. Where shallow flat water was expected, there were now raging rapids. Where rapids were expected, there were whirlpools. We suffered a number of calamities. I watched as a canoe got sucked into a whirlpool, stood up on end and was flushed as if down a toilet. The canoe and its contents re-emerged in pieces: a broken hull, a man with a broken arm, and a paddle snapped in half. My canoe-mate and I got into a heated argument in the middle of a rapid, disagreeing about strategy. We got turned sideways, hit a standing wave and I watched her be ejected from the boat onto a large rock. I had to find a way to turn around in the bow, make it the stern, and solo through the foam wondering if my stupidity and temper had been the end of her. One night a leopard wandered through our camp. In another mishap, a man broke his tail bone.
On our last night, listening to raging rapids downstream and knowing that the last day would involve hours of white water, we sat sullenly around the campfire. All the beer and bravado were gone. Seemingly, so was the solidarity. In fear and fatigue the unlovely parts of ourselves had been exposed. My romantic narrative seemed foolish.
Sometimes, I try to remember that moment of disillusionment when I read the Christmas story. The Christmas story is one of many journeys. We paint them with allure. We idealize them. But Joseph and Mary’s journey to Jerusalem would not have been romantic; it would have been brutal. Scorching days, freezing nights, cruel terrain, fear of bandits and hospitality refused. They too would have turned to recrimination and blame. The journey of the Magi also would have been fraught. They would be people of privilege but that would not have protected them from fleas, camel sores, the violence of brigands or the cunning of men like Herod. And don’t talk to me about the shepherds. They could not have been more different than the fresh-scrubbed children in cute costumes playing them in pageants. They were the poorest of the poor, the smelliest of the smelly, almost untouchables. And what did they feel when the angels showed up: terror. An emotion most common in Palestine under Roman rule.
If we allow the romance of Christmas pageantry to disguise the danger and suffering of all these journeys, then we are robbed of the power of this story. ‘Ring the bells that still will ring; forget your perfect offering; there is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’ That’s how the light gets in. Not through strength. Not through wholeness. Not through romance. Not through triumph. Through the cry of a child birthed through fear in a barn.
That’s how the light got in on the banks of the Orange River. Our heavy silence at the campfire was broken when our Afrikaner guide picked up a guitar and our African guide began to sing in soft voice. I can’t even remember the songs. They weren’t songs of victory. They were soft, even halting, but they formed a container that could hold our emotions and fears. A few people joined in. Still tentative. Then a queer thing happened. The light changed. There was no great star hovering as if over Bethlehem. But the many stars drew closer. Their crystalline clarity lighting up the desert hills from which we heard the occasional cry of a mountain cat. The river became like molten silver. As the singing faded, we were held by something much larger than all of us, a light shining on and through each of us: African and Afrikaner, woman and man, straight and queer, white and brown and black, magi and shepherd. I use the word ‘God’ for the thing that held us. Others wouldn’t. I don’t think that matters.
I think we got an inkling of Bethlehem magic that night. A moment of stillness in the journey. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in. We slept well. The next morning, we ate well and then slipped onto the river with quiet confidence – Black, White, Brown.
And in Bethlehem? After the visits, after the proclamations, after the wonder. After a moment of stillness in the journey, what next? To rise again. To feel fear again. To join another perilous journey. This time to Egypt, that land of slaveholders, seeking safety. But with the light inside.
And here we are tonight, in a moment of stillness between journeys. Bloor Street United Church has many miles behind it, some of them marked by smooth, flowing water, some marked by class 5 rapids, some by seemingly endless portages or by being bogged down with no visible progress. At times you have acted with skill and courage. At other times you bickered in the white water, got turned sideways and hit the rocks.
Tomorrow’s journey is unknown. We go into COVID World without our home. Even this night isn’t as we would have it. We would have sung ourselves out of this place with hundreds of voices resounding. But we can make our offering. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. In this moment of stillness between journeys we hear that baby’s cry, far off but approaching. God of God, light of light, abhor not our imperfect offering. We have no great choir, so we listen for your angels. Our procession from this place will not be triumphal, but it will be honest and hopeful. We offer to you every step that has brought us to that place, graceful or stumbling. We offer to you every step we will take out there, agile or awkward. Friends, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”