“The Stable Is Our Heart”

The darkness was warm and inviting. People sat shoulder to shoulder in the pews. Dozens more lay on the floor of the chancel. Projectors splashed the night sky onto the ceiling. Music, readings and visual art immersed us in the mysteries of the cosmos. This event, at Hope Lutheran and called “Night Songs,” reveled in the night sky. As I sat there under the stars, I couldn’t help but think about how our culture and our religious tradition have labeled darkness as the enemy and light (or whiteness) the savior. So it felt strange to celebrate darkness, strange in a wonderful and revelatory kind of way.

It helped me to realize that God’s soul-shaking, earth-renewing revelation comes to us in darkest, deepest night. Think of how quietly, how subversively, the holy child slipped into the world. The only witnesses to this cosmic birth were his humble peasant parents and the surprised animals in the stable. The bright angel voices sang of the child’s coming, not in some royal court, but in a dark, barren field in the middle of nowhere. They brought their heavenly harmonies to the shepherds, who stand for people everywhere doing the hardest work for wages that disrespect their very humanity; laboring in the shadows of our mighty economy, literally breaking their bodies to bring comfort and peace to the rich.

On this silent night, this holy night, will you celebrate darkness with me? Will you open the stable of your heart to welcome this little one born beneath the stars? Let us not be blinded by the glare of empirical power and the bright banquets of plenty. Let us perceive the subtle entrance of one who comes quietly to us as joy and peace and good news in our night of need…

when we are displaced, without shelter, far from home …

when we are refugees running from famine and genocidal armies;

when we are overwhelmed by a culture that tolerates abuse, and a politics that batters the soul;

when we sit in the hospital, watching the chemo drip;

when the phone call comes with the message we dread;

when we struggle to love ourselves, to match the person we are with person the world sees and hears.

The texts read at the Night Songs event reminded me that most of the universe is “empty” space, or the space between things, both unimaginably large things and microscopically small things. The distances between atoms, within things we think of as solids, are enormous. And so are the distances between the stars. Darkness confronts us with the mystery of existence, with the question, who are we, against the vast canvas of time and space? And yet darkness also creates intimacy—with each other and with God. It is a visceral experience of the vulnerability that holds us together in relationship.

In our house we’ve been reading R. J. Palacio’s book, Wonder. Ten-year-old Auggie Pullman was born with a rare disease that causes facial deformities. As the book opens, Auggie is making the transition to a regular school after being homeschooled during his early years. There he endures all the typical struggles of the new kid as well the cruelty of those who don’t understand his disease. As spring arrives, Auggie spends his first nights away from home, joining a class trip to a nature reserve. During the showing of an outdoor movie, Auggie and his best friend Jack wander off into the woods away from everyone else. There, in the deep darkness, they have a run-in with some bigger, older kids from another school. The kids are uncomfortable with Auggie’s appearance and begin teasing him. Fists and words fly, sweatshirts rip, and then thankfully three more 5th-graders show up. These three hadn’t been Auggie’s friends before but in that moment they stand up for him. When the confrontation is over, the boys realize that Auggie’s hearing aids are missing. Auggie says:

Everything that had just happened kind of hit me and I couldn’t help it: I started to cry. Like big crying, what Mom would call “the waterworks.” “You’re one brave little dude, you know that?’ said Amos, putting his arm around my shoulders. And when I kept on crying, he put both his arms around me like my dad would have done and let me cry.[1](p. 270)

Actually, Amos and Auggie are both brave little dudes in this moment, as they choose compassion and connection over the stereotypes that say boys don’t cry, and boys certainly don’t comfort other crying boys. In the intimacy of that deep, dark night, Auggie reveals the profound pain of rejection that he carries with him always. And Amos learns to really see Auggie as a person, rather than an object of ridicule, fear, hatred, or pity. He comes to know Auggie as someone both hurting and brave, as a trustworthy friend who longs to receive the friendship and acceptance of others.

The darkness is alive with the real presence of something more, someone else. Huddled together in the shadows we can feel the experiential truth of the incarnation, the truth that God is in our flesh—the whole of us—mind, spirit, body. And that this incarnation means that just as God is in us, we are in God. We participate in God.

“A starry sky is in my arms,” the poet imagines Joseph saying. Experiencing the birth of the infant Jesus brings this father close to the sacredness of life itself (as close as you have to be to feel a baby’s breathing along with your own). Joseph struggles because he feels he can’t claim this baby (how are you mine? I am like a father). Yet his life has become inseparable from the life of this little one. Through this birth, he, too, is reborn, again and again. “Each dawn is different because you are here.” Jesus is revelatory. Jesus is the sign for all of us that our flesh and blood lives—especially those dark, empty spaces of need and hope, longing and love—hold cosmic significance. “A starry sky is in my arms.” In the warm, inviting darkness, we are connected to the universe, to all that is. We participate in God. And this is good news of great joy for all of us. Amen.

“Joseph” by Michael Dennis Browne

a starry sky is in my arms 

I hear my breathing — now not only mine
each dawn is different now that you are here

sometimes I stare at you, sometimes I tremble
I stand above you, my head a moon
and you down there on the sweet straw

each dawn is different now that you are here
I hear my breathing, now not only mine

all my dreams for you, wondering
who you might be, how far you may have come
to be with us

each dawn is different now that you are here

sometimes I feel among waves too steep,
my boat too small
for these wide hands to have made

when I’ve been working, when the sun is low,
I sink into the stream and lie there, pale as stone
and still this burning that I feel
so deep inside me

how are you mine, child?
how are you ever mine?

I am like a father
I am like a father

so let the old Joseph die, the new be born
hold high this lantern for the world to see —
this child, this light, this saving one

a starry sky within my arms (O heart!)
each dawn is different now that you are here

[1] Wonder, R. J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. p. 270