Have you ever imagined being transported to a time and place in the past?
I had a great friend who loved to do that. He was the designer for art exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art and he wanted to experience the historical settings that he evoked for shows as diverse as Daimyo Japan and The Treasure Houses of Great Britain.
Then I was a museum person myself and I was intrigued with that kind of imaginary time travel, too, particularly thinking about my work on the Italian period of the artist Anthony van Dyck. I wanted to BE there (like a fly on the wall) when Van Dyck was looking at art in Venice, Rome, Florence, Parma, Palermo and Genoa in the 1620s. I wanted to watch him work when he earned his bread and butter making paintings along the way.
I also yearned–and still do–to see the places as they were then. Most of all, Papal Rome. The city was being rebuilt after centuries of abandonment and decay. In the Middle Ages Rome had shrunk to a few thousand residents huddled around the Tiber River. When Van Dyck was there, several small churches I love were being built and decorated. Construction of the new St. Peter’s was being finished, too. And the young Bernini was beginning his life-long work supervising the decoration of that vast interior. How amazing it would be to see his debut: installing the monumental baldacchino at the crossing of the nave!
Not being a person of faith then, I didn’t visit churches to pray. My pilgrimages were all about art!
Now, that has changed. My favorite imagined time-travel destinations are centered on the early Christian story. It would be astonishing to observe St. Paul’s diverse, challenging community in Corinth, e.g. Most of all, I think about being an unseen witness to moments in the life of Jesus–like the baptism in the Jordan, the Sermon on the Mount, healings in Capernaum, Calvary, the Empty Tomb.
But first, there’s the birth in the manger.
Have you imagined places in the Holy Land? Oftentimes visiting sites we’ve imagined is surprising; sometimes it’s disappointing. I recall my sadness at seeing The Alamo for the first time—not out on a prairie but in the middle of downtown San Antonio!
In Bethlehem, a church stands where Jesus is thought to have been born. Originally built in the 4th century by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest Christian church in the world.
Frankly it is a shock–a revelation–to descend the steep steps beneath the altar to the place where tradition said Jesus’ manger sat. A group of pilgrims from St. John’s did that this February. What we saw blew away a lifetime of images: hundreds–even thousands–of them, everything shown in Old Master paintings or sculptural crèche ensembles, or modern greeting cards.
Jesus’ first home on earth wasn’t in a stable at all, not even a lean-to. It was instead a crude shelter carved into the living rock–as simple, as primitive, as humble as it could be.
That small limestone cave was a world away from the monumental temples of Imperial Rome. But the remote region of the Galilee was NOT beyond the reach of Imperial power. On the contrary. Luke tells us that Augustus’ decree forced Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. A dangerous, difficult journey at best, it fell when Mary’s child’s was due.
Luke makes the connection and the contrast between those worlds–mostly between the lines.
On one hand you have Caesar Augustus, the supreme ruler of the known world. On the other, a few of his ordinary subjects: a simple carpenter and his fiancée, and a group of poor shepherds. The original reader knew that Augustus lived in luxury, that he traveled in comfort and safety: guarded by troops, and heralded by trumpets. She also knew, in contrast, that the shepherds were homeless–living in the fields with their flocks–and that Mary and Joseph came from a tiny village. Their journey made them temporarily homeless, as well; they found no room when they arrived in Bethlehem.
Luke’s story turns the world’s values and notions of power upside down. Here the mighty Emperor Augustus is a bit player: just a name. God has chosen to come to earth not as a nobleman in the capital, but as a vulnerable baby in an ordinary family in a remote part of the Empire, far from the center of power.
God’s angel messengers do not herald the Emperor’s arrival, nor do they bring him the good news. Instead they search out shepherds, the lowliest of people, to announce the birth of God’s Messiah. In fact, God’s child has been born much as the shepherd’s own might be, sheltered in a cave with animals and resting in a feeding trough.
Nothing I’m saying is news, any more than the story itself. But we tell it every year because it’s a timeless and necessary reminder that God’s ways are not our ways.
God is God and we are not!
God is the ruler of the universe—of all time, space, and history.
And God’s love will always find a way.
In the two thousand years since Jesus’ birth, the Empires of Rome, Byzantium, Napoleon, the Papacy, Czarist Russia, and Britain itself have risen and fallen along with countless other powers and rulers. Most of their names are footnotes, at best.
But the name of that little child–who was born and who died in obscurity–is known and honored in every part of the globe.
Today America is the center of world power. Now, for a time, we dominate the world: economically, militarily, even culturally. But in God’s enduring story, we do well to remember that America is just another name–another footnote.
The Christmas tale reminds us that ultimate value, meaning and power do not lie in the institutions or the trappings of this world–not in ours or any government, not in economic or military might, not in gilded palaces or steel skyscrapers. They never have. They never will.
Instead, God gave birth to the light of faith, hope, and love in the darkness of obscurity, of poverty and displacement. The light shone resplendently to those who had eyes to see: the simple shepherds who obediently and faithfully sought it out.
In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote:
“The Kingdom involves the ability to see God within those people and experiences [that] the world regards as little and of no account, ordinary.”
That’s what the Christmas story is all about.
Let it inspire us humbly, courageously to seek and kindle the light of God’s love in the ordinary: in simple places, in words and acts of kindness, in vulnerable, loving relationships with friends and strangers alike.
Let us be bearers of God’s love and light, born 2000 years ago, in all of the darkness of the present time.
Let us believe and play our part in the eternal truth: that light can never, ever be extinguished.