It may be the long dark nights at this time of year which made story telling an almost necessary pastime, not so long ago, or perhaps it is the apparent charm of the story itself – mother and child, angels and shepherds, the ox, the ass ? Whatever it was, whatever it is, Christmas has a way of creating its own particular beliefs and legends and folklore. Call them superstitions, if you want, but remember, only something very important gives rise to superstition.
One of my favorites is this: at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals – for a short time – are given the power of speech. To pray, to praise, to deliver messages or just to chatter. You may have heard of this before. It’s a belief that appears in one form or another all over the Christian world – mostly in Scandinavia and northern Europe, but also in France and Italy, and into the East.
Sometimes the animals are given a conversation. Strangely enough, Agnes Brodie, my very committed New England Unitarian mother-in-law, used to recite their conversation in Latin ! I don’t remember the whole thing, but I do remember this bit. From the horse: Hodie Christus natus est. Christ is born today. From the ox: Ubi ? Ubi ? Where ? Where ? From the sheep: In Bethlehem. In Bethlehem. I’m not that good at animal sounds, but from Agnes it went like this:
The horse. H-o-i-d-i-e, h-o-i-d-i-e Christus natus est.
The ox. Oooobi ? Oooobi ?
The donkey. In B-eh-eh-eh-eh-et-lehem, B-eh-eh-eh-eh-et-lehem.
And who knows? At midnight on Christmas Eve I’m always where I am right now – in Church. Or occasionally sound asleep in bed. And you . . . well, I suspect it’s the same with you. But I wonder. Who knows what’s soon to be said around here at midnight. Simon in the Parish Office demanding to be fed . . . again. Or Max, Lucy, and Louis in the rectory getting into to a little truth session about their master. Actually, I’m not sure I want to hear that!
But let me add a caution. If you are tempted next year to stay up late, ‘til midnight, and to eavesdrop, consider this. They speak – yes! – but according to the legend, the language, of course, is Latin.
But there’s more than just fun and fancy to this. It does, in fact, reveal a truth about the feast we celebrate this is evening. And that truth is: the birth of the Savior established a new harmony in creation. Harmony. Remember the prophecy of Isaiah:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together, and a little child shall lead them. ( 11:6,7)
Harmony. Harmony in creation. And one thing that is absolutely indispensable, utterly necessary for harmony is communication. The Savior birth brings harmony, and, as a sign of that new harmony, the animals speak.
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There is another Christmas legend – this one very, very ancient and on the surface, rather arcane. And it is this: that at the moment of the Savior’s birth the movement of time stopped and the whole created order paused. Time itself somehow came to a halt, and the universe was suddenly suspended in a moment which was outside of time.
It is a strange idea, difficult to imagine, and compared to the many other lighthearted legends of the season, it seems bizarre and even out of place. But, if you think deeply for a minute or two, the meaning becomes clear. Time stopped, for the moment of that birth in Bethlehem was the beginning of a new time. The created order paused, for the moment of that birth in Bethlehem was the remaking of creation and the recreation of time itself. They paused, they halted, in order to be refashioned into something new. The child born in Bethlehem that night would change the world entirely – now a new time and a new creation.
St. Paul tells us the same thing when he tells us that the child whose birth we celebrate is a new Adam. He, Jesus, is a new Adam, for by his birth – Paul is convinced – the destiny of humanity has been fundamentally changed and altered. In the old Adam, humankind was destined to sin and death and doomed to alienation from God. In the new Adam, our dear Lord Jesus, the bondage of sin is broken, the finality of death is finished, and man is joined truly and fully to God. This from Paul: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (II Cor. 5:17)
And from St. John: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) This, my sisters and my brothers, is what Christianity has the audacity and the courage to proclaim: that the Word was made flesh. That God, his Word, the Son of God, entered completely into human life and made human life his own. In that manger slept the creator of the stars. Suckling at his mother’s breast was the one who fashioned time and the universe . . . and you and me.
Our faith makes the astounding claim – and tonight we celebrate it – that God lived and experienced all that it is to be human. All that you and I know; all that we shall ever know as human beings – even pain and sin and hatred and death – all these things God knew. And by his living and finally by his dying and rising out of death, He, Jesus, fundamentally changed human reality – so changed it that we may well say that time and the world were remade by his birth and in his life. He – dear Jesus – is our new Adam generating and regenerating a new human race.
And – praise God for this! – into that new world and into that new time you and I may enter – through him. Into that new humanity you and I may be born – through him. And by his life, which lives beyond the grave, our lives may be quickened and made secure – through him.
And so, rejoice, my brothers and sisters. Rejoice! For Christ is born in Bethlehem. Rejoice! For heaven has come to earth. And earth, being made new, has been raised on high!