Another beautiful piece originally published on December 28th, 1993. Please enjoy, and we hope you have had a Merry Christmas.
It is cold and clear in the small town of Bethlehem, this night, in the days of Caesar Augustus. Cyrenius is governor of Syria, and we would find the road busy with people returning to their home town for the census. Bethlehem hums with the influx, and the only inn is jammed with travellers. The low-ceilinged rooms are hot and stuffy, and so we go back outside into the velvet dark, in which the stars sparkle like diamonds lit from behind.
Without quite knowing why, we make our way toward the rude stable behind the inn, to what amounts to little more than a rough cave in the hillside. There we stand, our breath making small clouds in the frosty air. The poor couple, who came to the door of the inn, asked very humbly if there was some place they could rest. Obviously, there was something about them because, instead of sending them on their way – as he would ordinarily have done with people who looked too poor to pay even a pittance – the innkeeper pointed them to the cave where the animals were housed, and then went about his business and thought no more about it. It was a busy time, what with all the people of the house of David crowding into the narrow streets, coming to register for the Roman tax.
We all know the scene full well that will greet us as we approach the stable – and yet, there is more. Gradually we become aware of a light shining out from the stable, a light that seems to illuminate everything around it, a light that no darkness can extinguish. Nothing has prepared us for the light as we, a little awed by its splendour, peep around the corner of the door of the stable. There, in their stalls, are an ox and an ass – and we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah that he spoke so long ago: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.”
Now, as our eyes grow accustomed to the light which floods the stable's interior, we notice the young mother – we had not really noticed her when she came to the inn-door – but suddenly we are amazed to see how beautiful, how serene she is as she bends over her new-born babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes which were the normal dress for an infant in those days. How completely the infant is bound up; only his head is unbound! But he does not struggle against the binding cloths – how much greater is the narrowness of our human nature that he, whom the whole of the starry heavens above us cannot contain, has assumed for our reconciliation with our Father in heaven.
With a start we realize that the light which floods the gloomy recesses of the cave and spills out upon the ground outside, seems to issue from the child, and its shining makes the calm tenderness in the mother's eyes even more glorious. Surely, we say, this cannot be the same woman who came with her elderly husband to the door of the inn a few hours ago. They weren’t worth a second glance – the roads are full of people, people on the move to register with the tax collector. But no, there is the old man, her husband, standing near his wife. Standing, behind the manger, he is not so evident. But even he, as he looks at his wife, and the baby, seems a figure of great majesty, not the shuffling tramp we had expected.
Wonder fills our hearts. Something about this scene makes us catch our breath. There is that wonderful light which surrounds the child. But there is more. The mother, with her cloak the colour of the blue sky – we can scarcely take our eyes from her. Words from the prophet Isaiah come into our heads: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” and other words, from the Wisdom literature: “I am the mother of fair love, and fear, and knowledge, and holy hope... my memorial is sweeter than honey, and mine inheritance than the honeycomb.”
So we too, on this most holy night, make our way down the busy highways of this present life toward the poor, mean stable. There in the darkness we kneel before the manger, where God has humbled himself even to being born in the pattern of sinful men and wrapped with swaddling clothes. And, clear on the frosty air, we hear the sound of angels singing of peace on earth, good will to men.
Hush! Listen. Don't you hear them even now?
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.