The Time When It Happened (From Luke 2.1-20)
“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…”
“The time came,” Luke says. “The time.”
When a baby is born, we want the numbers. Just this past Sunday, we learned of the latest baby born in our church family… Baby Will, to Allison and Andrew, to big sisters Annie and Emma and Maisy, with whom he’ll share a birthday… and in addition to the photo, the weight, the height, the news about his mother doing well… there was that additional detail: 10:13am. Time has become an essential point of information – sent out by group text and spread through social media and stamped on the official record. Yet even the most detailed of our gospel writers – the ancient historian author of Luke – has the time of birth missing from Jesus’ story.
On one hand it was time beyond time. All time is now marked by this birth – as the poet UA Fanthorpe observed in her poem, “BC:AD,” “This was the moment when before turned into after.” It could have occurred at any time. But it didn’t. It happened, as all human births do, at a specific time. A time when Augustus reigned over the Empire, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. That’s when Luke says “the time came.” Jesus was not born “once upon a time.” Jesus was born in real time.
In the absence of a birth certificate, we do know that it happened at night – that time when Luke describes shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, that time when a multitude of heavenly hosts dazzled against a dark sky, and a star popped against the deep midnight backdrop. We gather for this service on Christmas Eve, amidst the looming darkness of winter, because we believe it happened at night. We can see in the gospels how so much of the story is set at night.
But on another level altogether, we don’t really need Luke or any other gospel writer to confirm that time for us, because, at some level, we’ve always known the time when Jesus was born. He was born to people who, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, had lived in a land of deepest darkness.
“The deepest darkness is just before the dawn,” claimed the 17th century theologian Thomas Fuller, in what has become a hopeful truism, which unfortunately is just not true. The truth is, the deepest darkness comes when the night is half over. When the dawn still at some distance. When the sun is aligned as far from you as it can be, 180 degrees away from where you are on Earth. In the same way that the sun is at its highest in the sky between 11am and 12pm – “high noon” – one could call the deepest darkness the “low night.” Simply put, the darkest part of the evening is about halfway through the night.
But then we know that already. And we don’t need the birth record to confirm what we all know already, that that’s the time when Jesus was born. That’s when the cry pierced the chilled air and his young mother finally held him, right before the world turned toward the sun, swinging on its axis toward the light that is always calling it, always its created purpose. At the darkest hour, then, at that time, he is born.
It’s one of the great themes of the Bible that when circumstances are most dire, trouble most pressing, when we’ve exhausted all our resources and been faced with the limitations of our own feebleness and frailty, when it appears there is no more hope, when it seems people are forgotten are abandoned – just at that moment, God shows up.
This is not “once upon a time.” This is real time. As it was at Jesus’ birth. It was a time when taxes burdened people, and governments demanded a census and control, and politicians played angles, and soldiers brutally enforced it all. Real time, to a real mother and father who barely knew what they were doing as they journeyed against the night and urgently looked for a resting place, before coming to a ramshackle stable with but the tiniest flickering flame to guide their fragile way. Real time, when shepherds trudged along hour to hour trying to make a life, and when sages gazed through scopes wondering if they would ever see what they had not seen yet.
It is the same time in which so many of us find ourselves this night. We huddle in from a long year, that brought so much we could have never anticipated. As you know if you are with us tonight missing that friend, that loved one, that soul mate. Or as you know if you’ve waited for that call with test results from the doctor. As you know if your loved one is facing new challenges, new needs, and you’re attempting to help them as they stumble about in the darkness of a new life stage. Or as you know if you’ve experienced loss and the fragility of a dream – if you’ve waited and wondered in this season always so focused on the coos from the manger, “Will this dream of being a mother, a father, like Mary and Joseph, will it ever happen for me?” As you know if you’ve lost a job, or sensed the growing impact of pandemic taking its toll on you. As you know, in ways perhaps you don’t even talk about…
It will not be hard to see the turn from some of the darkness we have known this year. We’ve grieved deeply, and lost significantly, so it’s not once upon a time for us. It’s real time. It’s darkness beyond the personal to the national and global veil covering so many who are recovering from violence, and fleeing brutality, and trying to make sense of fanaticism, racism and hatred, or seeking to keep their families together amidst the crisis of migration.
This is real time. It’s a time as dark as we could imagine it to be… and that’s when he’s born.
It was the darkest of night one Christmas Eve when the poet farmer, Wendell Berry, made the rounds on his small farm in Kentucky, before recognizing that something about the darkness about him was familiar. It took him to a place he had known – or a place he felt he should have known – because he realized that Christmas Eve standing out in the night, “Oh. This is when it happened.” And he wrote this:
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief…
Us standing with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
“We ourselves are living in the world it happened in, when it first happened.”
This is the world in which it happened. And this is the time in which it happened. And we are the people through whom and to whom it happened. And it wasn’t once upon a time. It was real. It was time like this, a place like this, to people like us…
Throughout the bitter cold of winter, our church has had the opportunity to be a part of providing some warmth and light on the coldest of nights. As many of you know, the Interactive Resource Center runs the White Flag Shelter, an emergency shelter that houses people when temperatures drop below 25 degrees. We’ve been a part of this community service before, but this year with increased demand and need for more space and distance, we were invited by the IRC to be a secondary location, with up to 80 people using our church gym on the coldest nights this season — people who are invited in regardless of condition, who come from all over, no one turned away, including this past week, when the IRC got a call from the hospital, learning that a family was being discharged. They had a monthly rental at a hotel before the hospital stay, but upon checking out they did not know where they would go… the staff wondered what to do, there was no space available at any of the shelters and the White Flag Shelter does not take families, but this case was different, particularly urgent, because it was a mother and father and their baby. So the staff made whatever arrangements they could, thinking quickly. And they made a room for that family out of one of the equipment rooms off the gym of First Baptist, the baby in a hospital onesie, with the diapers and formula and clothes the staff could find, sleeping in a pack and play off the side of a church gym.
It’s not that Jesus came. It’s that God in Christ comes still, and that we ourselves might open a door and find them breathing there.
I don’t know precisely what time it is in your life – but the great truth and the swelling hope of this night, is the love of a savior who comes to us at a particular time: when the plans are changed, and the way is uncertain, and there simply is no more room, in the deepest darkness, when the light is as far from you as it can be… This is the time when it happened. And this is the world in which it happened. And we are the ones to whom and through whom it happened.
And it’s not once upon a time. But again and again.