Have you ever wondered why Jesus was born at night? We sing about it in any number of our carols—“Silent Night,” that we’ll be singing later; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “Away in a Manger”; and of course, the various references to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. Above Bethlehem’s “deep and dreamless sleep,” “the stars in the sky looked down where he lay”—where, if you believe the carols, he lay sleeping peacefully next to his mother, then woke up without crying. Because that’s what newborns do, right? But in any case, we have this mental picture—still, quiet night; sweet hay, contented animals; quiet, happy baby, radiant mother; and the stars shining serenely down on this beautiful scene—have you ever asked why? Jesus could have been born at 3 in the afternoon or 10 in the morning, after all; why was he born at night?
You might say it was so the star could shine, and be seen, from the moment of his birth. I’m sure that’s part of it, but there’s more going on here. I think what we have here is a parable brought to life. Jesus wasn’t born when the world was bright and sunny; he was born in the darkest part of the night, when there was little light by which to see. He was born at the time when the rhythms and energy of human life are lowest, when we are most vulnerable—physically, emotionally, spiritually—when it’s hardest to think clearly, and easiest to make mistakes. I don’t think that’s just a physical fact—I think it’s a metaphor, and one to which we need to pay close attention.
This isn’t just me, either. We celebrate Christmas in late December, but Jesus wasn’t born in December. Despite carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” with their images of “snow on snow on snow” “amid the cold of winter,” he was actually born in the spring. That’s why the sheep were out on the hills at night, rather than asleep in their sheepfolds: it was lambing season. Any other time of the year, the shepherds would have been back in town for the night. But the early church chose to celebrate the birth of Christ in late December anyway, for two reasons.
The practical reason is that celebrating this day in the spring would have put it right on top of Easter, which would just be impossible to deal with. More importantly, though, they wanted the symbolism of celebrating the birth of Christ during the darkest part of the year, the time when the night is longest and coldest. The early church set Christmas just past the longest night of the year in order to emphasize the Light of the World coming in the world’s deepest darkness.
For us, Christmas has gotten to the point that NBC’s medical editor can complain on-camera that Christmas is great but “religion is what mucks the whole thing up.” For the early church, it was very different. It wasn’t safe to be Christian in the Roman Empire until Constantine won the civil wars of the early 300s, and for decades to come the church remembered the times of persecution. They were grateful to have a ruler who worshiped Christ, but they didn’t assume it; they didn’t assume that the government would protect them, that they would be respected for their faith, that life would be generally comfortable and safe. Like the majority of people throughout human history, their mental image of rulers was much closer to King Herod than President Washington.
The one bad thing about separating out Christmas and Easter, as the church chose to do, is that it encourages us to treat them as two separate things; and they aren’t. They are the same story at different ends, addressed to the same reality: the terrible, crushing power of human sin, the unsolvable problem of evil permeating us and our world, and God’s unimaginable final answer. We sentimentalize Christmas, but the early church didn’t, and the gospels don’t. Matthew doesn’t invoke Isaiah 9 here, but the New Testament does elsewhere, for the great promises of verses 6-7; and look at the context of those promises. They’re addressed to “her who was in anguish,” to “the people who walked in darkness,” who “lived in the land of the shadow of death,” a land devastated by war and crushed under the burden of the oppressor.
When Jesus came, he came under the rule of Herod the Great—a man who had taken power in Jerusalem in a bloody three-year civil war against his nephew, and who maintained the peace through unhesitating brutality; he was a man so paranoid that he would execute several members of his family for supposed plots against him—including even his own wife. Under his successors, Jesus’ life would end in blood, the innocent dying for the guilty; Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ life began in much the same way, with the murder of the innocent to serve the fear and ambition of those in power.
And the world took no notice. Herod killed so many, after all; Bethlehem was a small town, there couldn’t have been more than 18-20 boys two and under. They weren’t important, their families weren’t powerful—to the Romans, who valued people for what they could do, they just didn’t matter. The most terrible thing about the slaughter Herod ordered is that outside of Bethlehem, nobody cared.
There is no easy answer to our evil. Human power won’t stop it; whether you’re talking peaceful political change or violent revolution, the unscrupulous always have the advantage, and will tend to rise to the top. Human institutions won’t stop it; there is no constitution so perfectly written that it cannot be destroyed in the end by those who would subvert it to their own purposes. Human cultures won’t stop it; just watch the way our own is going. We still react with horror and anguish to the atrocity in Connecticut—but many immediately begin trying to use that horror and anguish to serve their own agendas; and in the meantime, more and more voices argue that children aren’t that important, and neither are the elderly, because they can’t do anything for us. In the normal course of history, those who have no power are sacrificed to serve the purposes of those who do. Our world is dark, and there is no easy answer for the darkness.
And so God gave us no easy answer. He didn’t give us a better flashlight and tell us to find our own way out; he didn’t tell us to just try harder, be nicer, or like ourselves better. He didn’t even just tell us to love one another. He didn’t leave the burden on our shoulders at all; he took that burden, and he gave us himself. He knew our death; he knew the evil that we do, for he experienced it in his own flesh. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows—he was pierced for our sins, and crushed for all our wrongdoing—he took the punishment for all our evil thoughts and actions, and freely made himself the sacrifice for our deep guilt. He took our wounds, so that we might be healed.
In doing this, he canceled the power of sin over us; in rising from the dead, he broke the power of death; and by this, he set an end to them and all their works. A voice is heard in Ramah—a voice is heard in Newtown—a voice is heard in Auschwitz—a voice is heard in Bethlehem—a voice echoes down the halls of our history of grief: Rachel weeping for her children, weeping for all of us, because they are no more. And then, in response, comes another voice, promised by Jeremiah: “Do not weep. There is hope for your future; your children will come home.” All the works of evil will be undone; as Sam Gamgee put it, everything sad will come untrue. The baby born in Bethlehem among the Temple’s sacrificial lambs is the Man of Sorrows who died to give us life is the risen Lord who is coming again to take his children home. All shall be made new, and all shall be well, and all shall be made right: because he has already done it.