Standing in the Stable (Luke 2:1-20)
This is a meditation I found in a book called Silence in Heaven, this edited version is reproduced with kind permission of the author Mary Cotes. I think it is just fabulous. It deserves to be read slowly and thoughtfully and it is a fitting summary of the conflicting feelings I have been writing about this Advent.
Come with me for a moment. In your imagination, come with me. Let me take you to the stable. It is a dark, dark night, and we can hardly see to make our way down the track behind the houses. It is cold too. In some ways, we would rather be sitting around a bright fireside, talking with friends… Yet we have come tonight for a special reason. We have come to see the new baby. So we do not mind the darkness too much. And with our excitement, we do not allow the cold to penetrate too deeply.
We push the stable door. Inside it is not much warmer. But it is just as dark. If anything, it is even darker. Pitch dark… and we can see nothing at all, not even our hand in front of our faces. We stand, motionless, in the hopes that our eyes will become accustomed to the darkness… but we can see nothing.
But listen!… A scream, a shout of pain. And then quiet. Then another scream, and quiet again. We huddle closer together in the darkness as if to protect ourselves from the realisation we have come too soon. Too soon. The birth is not complete. We take each other by the hand, and stand without a word, stunned by the inappropriateness of arriving before time.
Another shout, as if it is dredged from the deepest pain. And then quiet. Shall we go out again, discreetly and pretend we were never here? But now that we are here, we cannot prise ourselves away. The pain holds us. We have become part of the relentless rhythm of silence and screaming…
‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’. Or so the carol goes… But do you believe it, now that you are standing in the stable?
The baby has still not come. How long have we been here? We have been drawn into the pain of this woman for whom nothing else exists…
The screams have become more rapid… we have been accelerated into a rhythm cries and calms that have left us clinging on to each other in suspense.
Then suddenly there is a cry that breaks into us, a scream that haunts the darkness. And then quiet. This time a deep quiet. A quiet of relief and exhaustion. We wait silently, sharing the quiet, not daring to punctuate it even by our own breathing… and then the sound we have been waiting for… Listen… A new voice cuts the darkness. The baby is crying.
The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’. Or so the carol goes. But do you believe it? Now that you are standing in the stable?
The dawn is beginning to break. There is quiet in the stable, and the light is beginning to penetrate. The mother is there in the corner, in the shadows. We can only barely make her out. There is joy in the way she puts her child to her breast. But she is exhausted. She has discovered a tiredness she never knew before. Look at the way she holds herself… all the pain, all the struggle, all the toil, shows in her demeanour.
Yes we are standing in the stable and we are beginning to understand God does not belong to some false world which pretends that there is no pain. God does not belong to a tinsel stable with full sanitation and cosy romantic lighting, or to some fairy-tale land where people find life comfortable and where homelessness is sweet. No. God belongs to our world, our world of pain and darkness, which yearns for joy and the new life which only struggle and anguish and patience will bring. Now we are beginning to understand. God is to be found not in never never Christmas card dreams, but deep, deep in the relentless rhythm of screams and silence, of joy and pain.
Perhaps you thought you could not find God in your own life, with its relentless rhythm of calm and crying?
Do you still believe that? Now that you are standing in the stable.
Revd Dr Mary Cotes is the County Ecumenical Development Officer for Buckinghamshire. The full version of this sermon can be found in Silence in Heaven: A Book of Women’s Preaching SCM Press 1994