Clement Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas is one of my favorites. It’s a wonderful expression of Christmas joy when St. Nicholas bounds down the chimney with a bundle of toys. I read it every year sitting in my mother’s lap. I still read it. I’m also reminded of a night before Christmas which may have been filled with worry and uncertainty. As usual, my mind soars and I imagine what might have happened. It a habit I can’t break.
I see a young woman, heavily pregnant and riding toward a strange city on the back of a donkey. Her name is Mary. No doubt her ankles are swollen, her breasts sore and tender. She does not know where she will spend the night. Only a few scant hours of daylight remain. When the baby turns in her womb, she recognizes the first signs of labor. She swallows hard and says nothing, trying not to be afraid. Mary already knows her baby is a boy as well as his name, still she worries.
I see her young husband-to- be, Joseph, carefully leading her over a bumpy, dust covered road; he knows that childbirth is perilous, and they are alone. He’s also aware that darkness is approaching; although he sees Bethlehem in the distance, it is still far away. His dream is a bit foggy now and he still recalls the angel glorious words. However, this is here and now, and the reality of birth is decidedly an earth bound evert. He touches Mary’s hand, and walks on as if nothing it wrong.
On the other side of the city, a shepherd prepares for another unending night on a high, windy hill. He puts on warm clothing, tucks a loaf of bread in his pocket, and joins his fellows to wait out the bleak midnight hours. It is lambing season and he must keep watch lest a fierce predator dashes out of the dark to snatch a new-born lamb from its mother’s side. With luck, the night will be uneventful, and he’ll be home by dawn.
Far to the east, a scholar who studies the habits of the heavens, steps outside to count the hours until darkness blots out the sun. He’s been watching for days. The stars he knows so well are not moving in familiar patterns. “What is happening?” he wonders. Something extraordinary, no doubt. The signs are there, but he does not understand why.
At last the young couple arrives in the small town of Bethlehem and finds shelter in a barn. Mary’s pains are sharper now, and closer together. She bites her lip and tries not to cry out. But it is useless. The baby is coming. She is glad she brought blankets to swaddle the child. Although she is grateful for a stranger’s kindness, she did not expect her child to be born among cattle and sheep. If only her cousin Elizabeth was here to help.
High above the town, the shepherd huddles close to a small fire, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He is the only one awake; the others are dozing before the next watch. The air is pure and still, the dogs are sleeping too. Suddenly a light appears in the sky, a brilliant orb glowing like the noon sun and radiating sparks. It is unlike anything he had ever seen. He shakes his fellows awake. They stand and rub their eyes, unable to believe what they see. The light grows larger, racing across the sky, as if a star is crashing to earth and they will be burned alive. They tremble in fear as the light encloses them; there is no time to run away. Without warning, a glowing figure steps from the light and opens his arms. Speaking with the voice of a trumpet, he cries, “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you news of great joy, which will come to all people.”
“He is an angel,” the shepherd gasps, shielding his face from the brightness. The next moment, the sky cracks open and a multitude of angels appear shouting “Gloria, Gloria.” The shepherd falls to his knees, struggling to remember every detail of what is happening. He has seen heaven and the story must be told. Not only to his children and grandchildren, but to generations. “Unto you is born this day, a savior who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherd repeats the words until he knows them by heart.
In the east, the scholar is stiff and sore. He has been standing outside for hours watching a blazing star split the night apart. He has never seen a star glisten with such intensity. Its brightness overwhelms him. He will not rest until he knows what it signifies. His knees ache as he abandons his watch and returns home to prepare for a journey to an unknown destination. He will follow the star no matter the cost. Perhaps he will learn more along the way.
Joseph rejoices as he stares intently at the fragile newborn wrapped tightly in a blanket and asleep on soft straw. It’s all over now. They are safe. Mary rests, as she recovers from the pain and exhaustion of birth. The baby is healthy and strong. He is amazed. This tiny boy, God’s child, is in his hands; Mary’s too. Together they will cuddle and kiss him, feed him and dress him warmly. Protect him and watch him grow. Most importantly, they will explain the teachings of their faith and how to pray. Joseph looks outside and sees an olive sky, the first sign of dawn. The day which began with worry and uncertainty has ended in wonder and joy. A new day is beginning, and nothing will ever be the same. To borrow words from an old hymn, it’s a glory halleluiah jubilee. Thanks be to God.