December nights in southeast Florida are velvet-dark and beautiful. For several years before we moved here, I made it a habit to walk almost every night for about 6 miles. I had a route I could find my way through, even on the darkest night. Because I knew my way so well, because it was so dark on most of those December nights and I never carried a flashlight, it was a time that felt like I was invited to contemplate the profound mystery of a God who surrendered all the power, might and glory of infinity in the choice to come be with us.
As I walked, it wasn’t so much that I had words to pray with, as a sense that I was invited to simply allow myself to be in the presence of a mystery as deep as the dark all around me. I would become aware of a stillness inside of me that felt like it went on forever. It was in that silence that I could hear how the Word of God was spoken into being then came and pitched a tent in our midst.
This year, the invitation is different. This year, I have been given glimpses, flashes of new understanding about the night of our Savior’s birth that are only possible because this city slicker is discovering life in rural Alabama. A couple of weeks ago, Sherod and I were out starting to get a part of our land ready for a garden in the spring. We were busy and there was quite a lot of back and forth and here and there going on when I looked up and saw Gus, one of the horses we board, looking intently at us from just outside the pole barn. I couldn’t help but think of this night all those years ago in Bethlehem, and how the barn animals must have watched intently, as Mary and Joseph came into the stable, and Mary labored to give birth. Gus, with that intense gaze, brought me so much closer to the miracle of this night.
One of the parts I love most about being a priest is getting to place a simple piece of bread in people’s hands at communion. All the hands that cup in expectation are so beautiful to behold and often move me to tears. Last Sunday morning, when I put a communion wafer in Mr. Caswell’s hands, I looked down and saw hands that carry the story of a lifetime tending to livestock, hands that have helped in the birth, and life and death of all kinds of God’s creatures. Once again, it felt like a glimpse—a quick moment of understanding. Seeing those weathered hands, I thought about the hands of the shepherds who came to behold the newborn child of God, hands that also told a story of birth and life and death: How it is all a miracle and it is also about hard, hard work.
The smell of livestock around us, and freshly plowed soil, the wild, untamed sound of coyotes howling in the night and our ability to look up and see a gazillion stars on a cold, clear night. Somehow, each and every one of those moments here in Lowndes has been an invitation to go and see.
In the course of our life, the invitation changes form, we follow many different paths to get to Bethlehem. I wonder: what path brought you here this night? And what have you learned about yourself and your God on the path that got you here? I imagine the stories are varied and colorful and astonishing.
Regardless of how we got here, of what we learned and who we have become on that path, what we come to behold is simply this: That a little child was born, to an impossibly insignificant young family in a tiny speck of a country on stardust become a planet in the vast expanse of the universe. I bet this was one of thousands of other births that night and to many it did not mean a thing. And yet, that birth changed everything then and it still has the power to change everything for us here and now. That birth can portend the possibility of healing where none seemed possible. That birth can help us walk when we think we will never have the strength to stand again. The child that was born this night will go on to teach that we are capable of feeding five thousand when all we have is a handful of black eyed peas and just enough turnip greens to take care of our own family. That child changes our hardened hearts and makes us willing to be part of the kingdom of God where mercy, generosity and fearlessness guide our choices and shape our love.
The path has brought you here tonight was for this: to allow hope to be born again, in your heart, in mine, in the heart of our broken world. Listen, listen carefully tonight. A newborn child cries in the night. Angels sing in joy. We have found our way to Christmas once again.