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 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.”
“The time came,” Luke says. “The time.”
When a baby is born, along with weight, length, name and news on the heath of mother and child, we learn first the time of birth. Time has become an essential point of information – sent out by group message 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 here in worship on the last night of Advent, 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 the 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 sit here 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 at some point in the last 365 days. As you know if your loved one is facing new challenges, new needs, and you’re attempting to help them as they fumble 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?”
So here in our church, it will not be hard to see the turn from some of the darkness we have known this year, for although we have experienced so much growth and life and promise, we’ve also grieved deeply, and lost significantly, and lit candles of remembrance so frequently as so many have died and found another plain, another dawn.
It’s not once upon a time. It’s real time. It’s darkness beyond the personal to the global veil covering so many who are recovering from storms, 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 (1)
“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.
Tom Long is a preacher and teacher of preachers, who shared about a visit he paid to a friend at Christmas time – a last visit, it turns out, as his friend was near the end of life from a terrible illness.
One night, Long went to his friend’s home. He passed through the neighborhood, full of all the Christmas kitch – frosty and Rudolph and all those imported twinkle lights strung in the trees.
He parked in the driveway of one of the few light-less houses on the street. And he went upstairs where his friend was in his bed. There was not much to say. Darkness. Silence. They sat, not really in awkwardness, but in the comfortable stillness that old friends can share.
And that’s when they heard some movement downstairs – muffled voices, shuffling feet. And it was the choir from his friend’s church, coming to sing Christmas Carols. Long could overhear that they were struggling to know just what to sing in that place at that time. But then Tom Long heard them decide on the carol, “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.”
It’s not usually the first carol in the line-up, but they started to sing.
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung!
They sang the first verse downstairs, but then their voices grew stronger as the second verse started.
Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, The Rose I have in mind:
With Mary we behold it, The virgin mother kind.
Long and his friend looked at each other as the voices swelled. The choir was coming up the stairs, with footsteps ever closer.
To show God’s love aright
And then these choir members were standing in the room with them. His friend’s face held a still look of peace and assurance.
She bore to us a Savior
And Long’s friend turned away so they couldn’t see his tears.
When half-spent was the night. (2)
I don’t know 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 “when half spent was the night.” In the deepest darkness, when the light is as far from you as it can be… That’s 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.
- Excerpt of “Remembering It Happened Once” by Wendell Berry
- From “When Half-Spent Was the Night,” a sermon by Tom Long