The church is in the business of getting us to pay attention to time. Think about it: it was Pope Gregory the XIII, in 1582, who created a new calendar, called the Gregorian calendar, of course. It was meant to correct errors in the old Julian calendar, because it was important to have the dates of big feasts of the church right. Pope Gregory issued a formal church document, a papal bull, to make the new calendar both the legal and religious law controlling time.
Or think about this: one of the first big controversies in the Christian church was an argument over when Easter should be. You recall that Easter is on different dates each year. The eastern churches first tied the date of Easter to the Jewish Passover, meaning that it might not occur on a Sunday, and then calculated it based on the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one. The western churches said it was to be on the first Sunday after the full moon after the spring equinox. This disagreement was one element that led to the split between the eastern and western branches of Christianity. Church leaders in both places were sure that they had the right understanding of time, and how it was to be treated in the church and in the world.
Popes and patriarchs argued about time. It was important: people’s lives were ruled by time, by the seasons, by the harvests…and time was ruled not by papal edicts, but by the stars. The measurement of the passage of time and the seasons was done by watching the predictable pattern of the movement of the stars in the skies.
Now you may have been wondering what all this talk about time has to do with Christmas, with the exception of wondering how quickly I will get to the heart of the matter so we can have communion and go home and get some sleep. But here is the spot where it all comes together: time and stars.
Time…we know that Mary’s time has come. The gospel says so: the time came for her to deliver her child. We have a physical marker in the form of Mary coming to term. This happened in a very particular time: Luke has given us some important historical markers by telling us this tax census that caused Mary and Joseph to head to Bethlehem occurred when Augustus was the emperor and Quirinius was governor of Syria. So now we’ve got a historical marker of time as well. But something else happens: an astronomical event, which, as those old Popes reckoned, is also a critical marker of time, since all the calendars are tied to the movement of the stars.
Time matters. We measure so many parts of our lives and our stories by means of time. We know that December 24th is Christmas Eve, as sure as I know that May 9th is my daughter’s birthday and July 4th is Independence Day.
But what happens when time is twisted and reshaped into something new? What happens when heaven breaks in to our world and remolds it?
The first sign of that bend and crinkle in the fabric of time in the tale of Christ’s birth comes when shepherds are minding their sheep on the hillside. It is a dark, cold night. They are dozing, but keeping an ear out for predators. Suddenly, they hear something – music, but music stranger and more beautiful than anything they have ever heard before. It is an angel singing: heaven breaking through the dome of the sky. And no sooner than they realize this is an angel, there are many of them, all singing that wild glorious song of praise: “Glory to God in the Highest! On earth, peace on those whom God favors!”
It is the same imagery that CS Lewis uses when he tells the story of the genesis of Narnia: ““Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out – single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.”
That second wonder: the stars…heaven breaks through, with song and with light. Those stars, thousands upon thousands of them, something that did not match any of the charts of the ancient astronomers. Those markers of time, behaving in ways that didn’t fit the predictable march of stars across the sky through the seasons, visible proof that something wild and ecstatic and new was happening in heaven and on earth.
And it generates other strange events: shepherds go into town, even though they would never have done so because it would have disturbed their flocks, to share the news of what they had learned. A trio of men who had never been in Israel before are tramping across the desert, following a moving star, not a comet or shooting star, not a supernova, but a steadily moving star that feels to them like a beacon. A baby in a manger who has the aura of royalty despite the rude stable where he rests.
Heaven breaks through, and breaks into human time. Doesn’t the angel say it? “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” On this day, a very different flavor of time than the one spoken of at the beginning of the story “in those days.” On “this day”, in this time, something happens that puts aside “those days.” It restarts time in a new way. Heaven breaks through and presses a cosmic reset button, and on this day, we get a new beginning. A new beginning, in the form of the one who redefines what kingship means. A new beginning, in a tiny baby in a backwater town in a lean-to shack that sheltered livestock. A new beginning, and the final message that we take with us as we move into this new time, and these new rules, is the one the angels sing: “Be not afraid! Heaven has broken through. Time is reframed. A King is among you, not the King you thought you would get, but the one you truly need. Be not afraid! Your heaven is here in this baby. Glory to the God who rules in heaven…and sleeps in his mother’s arms in this place!”