“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”” -Luke 2:1-20
As you reflect on that famous passage from Luke 2, I want to share with you an excerpt of a poem from one of my favorite poets, the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran. The title of the poem is “The Playground of Life.”
One hour devoted to the pursuit of Beauty
And Love is worth a full century of glory
Given by the frightened weak to the strong.
From that hour comes man’s Truth; and
During that century Truth sleeps between
The restless arms of disturbing dreams.
In that hour the soul sees for herself
The Natural Law, and for that century she
Imprisons herself behind the law of man;
And she is shackled with irons of oppression.
One hour devoted to mourning and lamenting the
Stolen equality of the weak is nobler than a
Century filled with greed and usurpation.
It is at that hour when the heart is
Purified by flaming sorrow and
Illuminated by the torch of Love.
And in that century, desires for Truth
Are buried in the bosom of the earth.
That hour is the root which must flourish.
That hour of meditation, the hour of
Prayer, and the hour of a new era of good.
And that century is a life of Nero spent
On self-investment taken solely from
This is life.
Portrayed on the stage for ages;
Recorded earthly for centuries;
Lived in strangeness for years;
Sung as a hymn for days;
Exalted but for an hour, but the
Hour is treasured by Eternity as a jewel.
Ages, centuries, years, days, and then the hour. It is strange what we do with our limited time here on the earth. It is strange that we are so quick to trade our hours for centuries; our moments for the promise of progress and mastery. Weighed on the scales of eternity, our heaped centuries and millennia of collective toil have passed over with nothing but the empty vapor of glory and faded memory to mark them; breath and the shackles of ironed oppression, as Gibran put it.
Maybe you don’t think about things this way; maybe I have waxed a bit too philosophic for you, but I would invite you to think with me. You know the truth of which I speak, though these may not be your words. You know the truth because you are exhausted.
I see it everywhere. Go to your local bookstore, if people do that anymore, and pick up a selection from the self-help or the spirituality section — any selection will do. Somewhere in there resides the invitation to be still, to slow down, to catch your breath, to listen in silence. Ours is, supposedly, a productive age, a connected age, a triumphant age, yet there is no time to be still; no time to collect ourselves; no time to simply think. I feel it. I know it in my bones. As a pastor, I hear the regret expressed by grieving families, “if only there had been more time”; from lost souls who wander aimlessly amidst the hurried fever of their lives, aware that something is missing.
We are exhausted. The iron shackles of our days weigh heavily. Like many of us today, we will gather for Christmas Eve services, and amidst our songs and our prayers, and as we ready ourselves to light candles and turn out the lights, we wait to sing that one song that brings us a momentary, collective sigh of relief. A handful of verses which sooth. It is one of my favorite songs as well, so I don’t condemn it. It is the song of our age, a song for an ascendant age trapped, as it is, between the competing currents of progress and the simple reality that we are mortal, our sight limited and our reach short.
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. Sleep in heavenly peace. Oh how I do love that song. In many ways, it defines Christmas for me. Yet, how strange is it that we have adopted it as our anthem? Strange because it’s just not true. Have you actually read Luke chapter 2? Was it silent?
No. It was noisy. It was filled with the clamor Augustus Caesar had brought upon the world, the sound of his deadly aspiration that the entirety of his world be counted, sorted, and ordered. That night, the jack-booted might of imperial legions goose-stepped through the once quiet streets of villages like Bethlehem as the weak scrambled to give over themselves to the shackles of the strong.
You know that night was not silent. If you’ve ever been within 100 yards of a woman giving birth, you know that with the coming of beauty and life and hope, cries of pain and labor pierce the air. Babies aren’t quiet. Add to this the sound of cattle, the bleeting of sheep, and the rough talk of lowly shepherds on a cold night, huddled around a fire, and there isn’t a single clue in Scripture indicating silence. Factor in their terror at the sight of those other legions, the army of angels of the heavenly host that cry out “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”, and I think it is clear that we must draw an entirely different conclusion.
No, the hour had come — the hour of beauty and love; the hour of man’s Truth; the hour when the heart is purified by flaming sorrow and the torch of love. The hour had come, and in him came the silence for which we have always longed, the silence for which we yearn even now. The silence of knowing ourselves, as we are, in relation to God. The hour of seeing our simple form house the very presence of God. The hour for which we all were made. The hour of the living Temple, the God-man, infant Christ here with us, as us, so that we might become who He is.
At his coming, the clamor of empire, the bustle of busy lives, the industry of our ceaseless production, the centuries that threaten to bury, to erase the all-important hour; at his coming, the tidal motion of the ages cease, and we find peace. “Exalted for but an hour,” Gibran wrote, “but the Hour is treasured by Eternity as a jewel.” In the hour of his life, eternity’s plan was set forth as a priceless treasure. In him, the fullness of our days was pleased to dwell.
And so I leave you with the poet’s unspoken question: what shall we do with ours? Our days? Our moments? Our hours? In reality, you have only now, this instant between the in and out of the air traveling through your nostrils to fill your lungs. Even that is not your own. What will you do with it? “Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.” (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, hymn) Be still and know God. (Psalm 46:10) Know that “the time has come… the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
Glory be to God, Amen.