From Christmas Haste, a sermon
They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. (Luke 2:16)
The shepherd lads animate the Christmas story with their racing feet, as a generation later two running disciples the Easter narrative, illustrating the demeanor of every earnest character in the presence of a new phase of truth. Vehement desire binds wings to the feet. Need rouses desire; responsibility challenges capacity. Few of us have heard our desire sing its full song; few have plumbed the true depth of our own capacity.
So they made haste – those shepherd folk – because the parched lips of high desire were within reach of cooling streams, because the restless wings of human searching were but an arrow’s flight from home, because the incoming tide of God’s love had caught human capacity in its resistless embrace to carry it to its life goal. The shepherds left their sheep in the care of the merry stars, and hastened to Bethlehem to reach the core of things, to press within the veil. They went not with the blackness of the night veiling their eyes, but in the radiance of a vision. Forgetful of self they looked with eager intentness into the depths of revelation. Past cot and fold they sped, past home and crowded inn, until they reached the palace gate. Within, the smoking torch, the lowing beast, the silent, watching man, the happy mother, the Babe. And what is it they see? In the embrace of the manger-bed a Babe. There is nothing to distract them from his human babyhood – no lace-fringed trappings, no dainty coverlet, no golden spoon. Coarse swathing-bands enfold him, the kindly straw is his cushion, a mother’s breast his only comfort, he who was above nature left no room for doubt that he was a part of nature.
The shepherds went back to their duty, and forever after their sheepfold was an angels’ choir, a court of Heaven, as they sat under the stars with eyes that dared not slumber, lest while they slept some new vision of the King in his beauty should spring out of the night.
As one looks over the Christian world there is such unappeased hunger among honest, earnest men and women as to give the beholder the same sense of pain as would rack him were he to see his own brother dying of malnutrition or starvation. Why do we dally? The angels have sung to us and pointed to the banquet table. But our feet are laggard and our pulse beats slow. We fear for the welfare of our sheep, we say. We shall lose foothold among men. We shall endanger our intellectual consistency. Or perhaps it is that we do not like the appearance of a manger or the surroundings of a stable. We are bidden to the church – the church that is so full of errancy and imperfection and failure. But the shepherds did not hesitate to leave their sheep. Too exclusive attention to our task keeps God from having a share in it. We need the relief that comes from Godly carelessness; or, to put it in less paradoxical language, we are suffering from the strain of constant calculation and anxiety. Those who learn to take rest in God, after a while become able to do their work in God, and spend their odd moments painting pictures of Heaven on the walls of their workshop.
It is true, indeed, that Christ is to be found only in a manger. The shepherds were told so, but they did not respond that, because he was not in a palace, they would remain with their browsing flocks under the clean stars. The most loyal adherent of the church does not contend that it is ideal, only that Christ is there. It is strange that he should be willing to make it the chief sphere of his manifestation on Earth, but it is one of the strange things that are true, like mirrored beauty in a muddy pool, the chaste pearl within the rude oyster-shell.
Modern life is fine in many of its aspects; it is diligent in its labors, honest in its investigations, courageous in its enterprises. But it lacks one thing needful. It is too reasoned, and not sufficiently spiced with the recklessness of those whose idealism is a controlling force that sends them to the Bethlehem manger with the racing feet of Christmas haste.