“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
Sean O’Connell – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 Film)
I love the Silent Night. Not the Christmas song, though I love that, too. I am talking about THE Silent Night, the first Christmas as told in Chapter 2 of The Gospel of Luke. It is a beautiful story shared in sparse detail. Not a single word is wasted, and, given the nature of the event described, it is a masterpiece of understated elegance. Tales of the genesis of heroes in myths are often celebrated in fantastic detail with extraordinary events birthing extraordinary beings. Luke, however, writes like a man afraid to add a single flourish, sharing only the details he knew with the utmost confidence happened. We tend to add the Magi or wisemen to the scene with their train of servants and kingly gifts. Luke offers us something smaller and more intimate.
There have been periods of my life marked by financial struggle. The worst came while I was a young man living alone and going to school. My dog ate better than me on some days. I smoked cigarettes because $2 of food was nothing, but the same amount on a pack of cigarettes suppressed my appetite enough that the hunger bothered me less. When people were kind enough to invite me to dinner, I put on an exhibition of eating worthy of July 4th at Coney Island. I scraped the plate clean with my knife rather than waste a single drop of sauce. The experience made me feel like I was falling through the cracks of life.
This coincided with a time I wrestled with the question of whether there was any deeper meaning to it all. Gravitating away from my atheism, I read books on Eastern religions and philosophies. Christianity held no allure for me at that time. In addition to the issues which often plagued my personal relationships with Christians, the opulence of certain churches and televangelists troubled me. I used to watch preachers and jokingly tell God in mock prayer, if your people can talk about you without asking me for money, I’ll bend my knees right now. I never lost that bet. The constant appeal for financial support grated me, an attitude exasperated by my own struggles.
Through a long series of disappointments in my studies of other spiritual traditions and claims, my affection for a particular Christian finally led me to investigate the story of Jesus, not his followers or his preachers, but the real Jesus. His story overwhelmed me. In Philippians 2:7, the King James Version of the Bible refers to Jesus as a man of no reputation, the incarnate God who humbled himself. He loved the weak, embraced the disaffected, while rebuking the powerful and prideful. Jesus never courted the favor of the wealthy but cautioned them not to let their high worldly position threaten their eternal soul. To borrow the words of theologian D.A. Carson, Jesus was better. There is a subtle elegance to the phrasing “Jesus is better.” Carson points out to claim he is the best is to make a universal claim, not untrue but less elegant. To say Jesus is better feels stronger. Whatever the world has, whatever it brings to the table, Jesus is better. That is the experience I had reading about him.
Which brings me back to the Silent Night. The first Christmas after God restored me I read and reread Luke 2:1-20. The setting is so foreign to me, a small town in Judea, no light pollution, no noise pollution. The population of Bethlehem has been estimated at 500 to 1,000 people total. I explained to my kids that Bethlehem’s population is smaller than many audiences I have spoken to over the years. If that population showed up to our church’s main sanctuary on a Sunday, they would fill fewer than half the seats at their largest estimation. The 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken days to cover, and the town at night would have been quiet in a way many of us would struggle to imagine, a world without electricity, media, or books. I try to imagine a child being born, an odd assortment of shepherds coming into town telling stories of angels, and a young mother storing up all the memories of this night in her heart.
People so often want to make it big, we want the Hallelujah Chorus, angels standing guard over the manger, kings and the entourages squeezing into the room with shepherds pushed to the edge of it all. The more we try to make it beautiful in our eyes the more I hunger to see the true Silent Night. The mystery of the God’s birth into our world. I want it small, because it reminds me how Jesus confounds the wise and the ways of the world. The greatest rescue mission by the greatest hero of all time began in a small town with a small population. The witnesses were a young bride, her travel weary husband, and a group of shepherds who had been watching their flocks by night. No trumpets sounded through the city, no angels illumined the manger, no heavenly halos hung suspended in the air. A family grew by one, a town rejoiced, and the world changed forever.
Not a magnificent spectacle, but merely Christmas.