This may have happened to you. You’re at the airport, about to board your flight. People are milling around in the waiting area. Then everybody suddenly turns their heads and looks in the same direction. Why? Somewhere in the midst of it all, a baby has started crying.
I once read – and this must be true – that the wave-lengths of a baby’s voice when crying are the same as the wave-lengths of the sound you hear when someone scratches his or her fingernails on a blackboard (some will remember what a blackboard is, or was). A baby knows how to get your attention! Consider this to be one of the wonders of human evolution.
Then ponder this ecclesial ambiguity, which I experienced with some regularity over the years, when I was officiating at Christmas Eve liturgies. A baby cries during the late service – and everybody seems to tense up, even to get a little miffed! Please, dear baby, do not interrupt my mood as I sing “O little town of Bethlehem, / How still we see thee lie! / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by.” At that moment, did anyone in the congregation ever uncharitably think: “Shut that kid up!!!”? As a parish pastor, I used to get complaints about babies crying at the late service: “Why didn’t the parents hire a baby-sitter?! Why didn’t they take the kid to the early service?!”
But what if a kid like that were to grow up and cry out from a cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You get my drift. That kid crying at the High Mass on Christmas Eve could be viewed as the point of the whole thing, even though it might make you feel like somebody’s scratching their fingernails on a blackboard. Or better: precisely because it does make you feel that way.
Brace yourself now. I’m going to take you still deeper into that wailing baby experience, where – if you’re anything like me – you don’t want to go. To celebrate (if that’s the word I want here) the whole Christmas Season properly, according to a longstanding Church tradition, you’ve got to deal with “the slaughter of the innocents.” You’ve got to confront Herod and his minions – Herod, who will have nothing to do with any “Prince of Peace” and who therefore orders his troops to murder all the male infants in the Bethlehem region. So much for “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” See Herod nearby, lurking in the darkness. And shudder.
Not a very pleasant Christmas thought. Which prompts me to ask: as I now find myself in my late eighties, am I getting a bit cranky? Perhaps. But as I contemplate the ravages of climate change and the nations raging against each other and global corporations devastating land and sea and air everywhere and, by default, desecrating the poor of the Earth, I feel less and less enthusiasm for celebrating peace on earth good will to all during the Christmas Season: especially when cadres of affluent folks like me, mostly in the global North, comfortably gather on Christmas Eve to be comforted, as if millions of the poor in Bangladesh weren’t being flooded half to death.
Cranky or not, though, this I know or I think I know. It turns out that late in my life I have become more and more a good Lutheran, perhaps more by default than by intention. Whatever else Luther said or did – and some of what he said and did scandalously supported the Herods of his own time and what amounted to their slaughter of the innocents – Luther knew that the first and last word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was and always will be the Cross. That baby in Bethlehem was born to die, not just to be cute and innocent on some holy night. And the shoulders of that baby were destined one day to bear the weight of all the wrenching evils of this world, sin, death, and the demonic.
How all this ends up with songs of hope – which there must be – on Christmas Eve is a mystery to me. A mystery in the archaic sense. Theologian Paul Tillich was wont to observe that to utter the word mystery you have to speak the “m” vocalization, which means that you must bring your lips together with no sound of your own. You have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. Our lips are sealed – and rightly so. Hence the Word of God speaks to us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Which could be translated as God saying to all us grown-up worshippers at the High Mass on Christmas Eve or any other time: “Shut up, dearly beloved, and get with the program!”
Before you sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” then, shut your mouth. Listen to the Silence of God, who alone is our refuge and strength, and then wait to hear the cry of that baby which sounds like fingernails on a blackboard. Christmas, then, is a wrenching season, before it is anything else. Cranky or not, that’s the Word I hear the Lord speaking to you and to me as we approach the Twelve Days this year.
Still, in the Spirit of the season thus understood, I wish you liminal moments along the way, too: moments when you can ponder what it might mean for you to cradle that wailing baby in Bethlehem – the Word made flesh – in the arms of your own faith, with comfort and joy.