There is a painting by Gari Melchers entitled The Nativity. Joseph is seated leaning forward. His large carpenter hands are folded together. His elbows are resting on his thighs. He looks down with tired eyes at the baby in front of him. Now, finally, all things are still.
Mary is next to Joseph, sitting on the floor with her head leaning on Joseph’s side. Her legs are straight out in front of her. She is quietly gazing at the new born.
Both are completely exhausted and wondering what it all could mean.
The child’s head glows brightly. And the light coming from the manger reflects off of Mary’s clothing and her face. The light also reflects off Joseph’s hands, his clothes and his brow.
The door to the room is open, but no light comes in from outside. The only light in the picture radiates out from the baby. The light shines in the darkness. The light of the world has been born. The painting invites us to take a moment, to sit and to look.
For we too are exhausted, we too are tired. But here, in that lower room, where the animals were kept, lies the light that no darkness can overcome. We are drawn in, so that the light of the world will reflect off of our clothing and off of our faces. In this moment, the light of the world puts no demands on us, no obligations, no duties. The light shines without us needing to do anything at all.
Hear these words of grace. The light shines without us needing to do anything at all. Just be… Just be… The time has come, Luke puts it in 2:6. The time has come and Jesus has been born. The light of the world has come into the world.
And that light comes on its own schedule. When we read Luke’s gospel we notice that there are different ways to account for time. There is, of course, the time measured in months. So Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary in the sixth month. This is probably August, since the Roman calendar had 10 months, not 12.
In the beginning of Luke 2, we read that Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census. This, Luke tells us, was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. So we can account for time according to the reigns of rulers and governors and the great events they bring about, like moving a vast number of people to their homes to register.
But Luke gently hints at a third way to account for time, Luke says, “the time came.” Or the time was fulfilled. The word used here is indefinite, imprecise. It is the kind of time or schedule that is unknown to us. Pregnancy is like that. In her book “Holy Listening” Margaret Guenther, notes that pregnancy is a sign to us that there are other times besides the hour by hour, day by day, month by month time that we live in. Some pregnancies are short. Some run longer than expected. While we say nine months. We all know that the baby comes when the baby is ready.
Pregnancy hints at the fact that God’s time is not our time. Luke doesn’t tell us if Mary was overdue, or if Jesus was premature. He only tells us that the time came. Other great events were shaping up around Mary and Joseph. They had to travel to Bethlehem. They had to discover that there was no room for them. They needed to arrive in the place the Lord had chosen to be born. Then the time would come, in Bethlehem. The city of David, the place where the prophet said the messiah would be born.
This schedule of events probably didn’t make any sense to Mary and Joseph. Mary was probably checking off the days. Relieved that Joseph decided to stay with her after all. Joseph probably got wind of the news of the census and did a little math himself and realized, Uh oh… we are going to have to travel right around the due date.
But all the while there was this other time, God’s timing, weaving through the events of history and through the edicts of kings to ensure that the right people were in the right place, when it was time for the baby to be born.
And this is still true today. There is another time, God’s timing, that is operating along in our lives. God’s timing cannot be measured, but there will be moments when that timing is fulfilled. There will be moments when God will put us right in the right place at the right time and we will see his glory.
We too may have to wander. We too are under authority of governors and leaders. We too may have to go when it is inconvenient and difficult. So we remember Mary and Joseph. Perhaps, God is at work through all that is going on, to ensure that we are where we need to be. So that when the light does shine in the darkness, we will see the Glory of the Lord.
They placed the light of the world in manger, a cattle trough. There was not a palace, nor a temple, nor silk blankets for this king. The glory of the Lord chose to shine in an out of the way place. The goods and glory of this world didn’t matter. Nothing would have been good enough anyway. He chose the out of the way place, so that out of the way people would find him. The angels told the shepherds, while kings rested in their palaces.
Think about these things as you imagine that baby in the manger today. Light shines out from him to you. No longer do you need to stumble around in the darkness. He will light your path and guide you. There is no being too early and no being too late. We catch a glimpse of the Glory of the Lord when the time is fulfilled. Lay down your anxieties at the manger. He cares not how you look, or where you come from. The glory of the world matters not to the one who fashioned the stars. He shines in the out of the way places, so that out of the way people might catch a glimpse of him.
He took on flesh, because the body, our physical bodies, have been formed and fashioned by his hand. Don’t miss the point. Christianity is spiritual and intellectual, but Christianity beats with a living heart of flesh. It is deeply physical. It is about the God who is clothed in light, choosing to then be clothed in flesh and swaddled with cloth.
In flesh he will know both suffering and pain. With this flesh he will die the death that destroys the power of death. And then, he will carry this flesh, his body scared and marked, tanned by the sun, and wrinkled by the wind, once dead but now alive, up into the throne room of heaven, as a continual reminder of the physical cost of love itself.
For we worship the God who made his dwelling among us. We worship the God who reveals himself, not as an idea, or an abstract concept, but as a flesh and blood child, who can cry and laugh, smile and weep. Others may speak of God, but we know that he walked this earth and that anywhere we stand, might very well be holy ground.
The painter knows this, as he captures with physical paint what words fail to portray. “She gave birth to a son, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.”