Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
December 24, 2019
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place 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 Saviour, 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 favours!’
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.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ‘
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
It was a clear night in Bethlehem tonight, and the temperature went down to about 8 degrees. The sun should be rising in a few minutes. But it’s rather cold, and there is rain in the forecast. It must have been that way for them too, so long ago. Chilly. Mixed weather.
And they lived in a time when roads were dangerous at night – you could be attacked by robbers in the hills along the road from Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph had made their long trek. The Roman soldiers weren’t like helpful policemen – they too could be rough with stray travellers. The shepherds on the road might be harassed as they hurried in from the fields. Arriving in Jerusalem from the east, the wise men would have had to navigate the cold dark roads, perhaps pay a fee or a bribe at the city gate, then find their way through the unlit streets to the palace. No streetlights. And then down to Bethlehem in the dark. All the inns closed and tightly locked. The star they followed was more than a sign – it was the light they needed to find their way.
It seems a bit odd that everyone in this story travels so much, and travels at night. Mary and Joseph come all the way from Galilee for the census. The shepherds leave their flocks in the fields and come into the town of Bethlehem. The kings come from a great distance – bearing gifts they traverse afar, as the old carol goes. Herod is the only character who doesn’t go anywhere, and he is the one person who doesn’t get it.
The distance they come is more than geographical. Mary and Joseph begin as conventional, modest people, living lives of complete obscurity but become the parents of the Messiah. The shepherds, lowly and rough, probably smelly and ill-spoken, become angel-see-ers, and the first evangelists. The three wise men, kings and scholars from a far-off country, leave behind their homeland and their religion to follow an intuition, a sense that there is something beyond the horizon that will answer their questions and change everything. And Herod again, because all he wants to do is keep things as they are, because he wants not to be changed, he is one who misses out.
This is the invitation of the Christmas story – be ready to travel. Leave your comfort zone. Depart from your humble home and your expectations, leave your sheep on the hillside, abandon your palaces and your scholarly certainties. See what you may find. Come on a journey, says the Christmas story, and travel at night.
But why do they do all this traveling at night? It certainly increases the drama, but it seems that the gospel-writers also had something they want to tell us about the nature of this journey.
Everything looks different at night. Part of it is that you feel so small, gazing up at the stars. Looking around, you see things you might not usually see, and even everything that is familiar looks new when it appears in a new perspective. You can’t take things for granted in the dark, there could always be surprises. Perhaps sometimes the things that seem so essential in the daylight take their places as less important. And sometimes things that just look boring and mundane suddenly develop qualities of great beauty. The sight of a city from a distance, or even a highway at night, or a streetlight shining in puddles can be very beautiful. It’s as if we don’t really see the light unless we are in darkness. Traveling in the dark, you may find more of what you are looking for. If it is a star you are following, you’ll have to travel at night.
It also seems as if the night-time is especially the time for long quiet thoughts to unfold. After the busy-ness and hurley-burley of the day, you can talk to yourself and perhaps begin to find out what you think. You can ponder things that have happened in your life, and wonder about what may happen next, without the pressure of urgent decisions. We can imagine how much Mary and Joseph had to ponder that night, and how the shepherds may have spent all their nights mulling over what they had seen. And the wisemen, as their camels plodded along under the shimmering light of that one star shining brighter than all the rest – they will have had time to think.
Night time may also be the best time for prayer. You can hear the voice of God, or the whirring sound of the stars. It is the time when the things we care about deeply, the things we long for and love the most can be spoken. The darkness invites honesty about our troubles, about our questions, about our hopes.
So, it’s no surprise that the early Christians decided to remember Christ’s birth at the time of year when the nights are longest. When our need for reassurance is greatest. The poet and artist Jan Richardson describes of this season of travelling in the dark, and as she travels she watches for a blessing:
All throughout these months,
as the shadows
this blessing has been
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you,
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
does not mean
to take the night away,
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
in the company
of a friend.
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief
May you be blessed by travelling at night.
(Photo Credit: Vinicius Vieira – Fotografia)