Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas: The Birth of Light

Christmas is a day set apart in the calendar to celebrate the birth of light on earth – in this instance, one small point of light, represented by the birth of a babe.
The presence of light is a dominant feature in the many pictographs that have been drawn of the birthing scene. In some, a shaft of light descends from the sky to a stable in Bethlehem; in others, the light is more diffuse, lighting up the countryside.
According to the biblical record, “the glory of the Lord shone all about.” Yet, also according to the record, only three shepherds tending their flocks at night are reported to have seen the phenomenon. If the light “shone all about,” one would suppose that everyone would have seen it, and been drawn to the manger to gaze in wonder at the awesome event that had occurred. Or, at the very least, there would have arisen a noisy hubbub of speculation about this strange display of light in the night.
In fact, the number of people who were aware of the light accompanying the greatest event in the history of the world could be counted on the fingers of one hand – the two parents and the three shepherds. There might have been more, but the record does not mention them.
The disciple John, in his description, comments that “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Apparently the vast majority of people at that time were “in darkness,” which is to say, insensitive and unreceptive to anything outside their normal range of perception. They were busy solving the big problems of the day, whether on a personal or national scale. Those of us today are no better. We consider ourselves well-educated, “enlightened” perhaps, but we rarely perceive anything other than what we are accustomed to seeing. What we “see” is conditioned and controlled by our cultural heredity – we think of important things as vast forces at work across the globe creating conflict between individuals and nations, huge problems that need our attention. We are so focused on the big and the “important” things of the day that we would not be aware of a little point of light that might appear in the midst of all this darkness. Sadly, Hollywood has conditioned us to expect God to act in terms of booming thunder and blazes of lightning ripping across the sky, not a quiet “light shining all about.”
John also made the observation that the light “…lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This statement has been interpreted in various ways, but it can be taken literally – each one of us was a point of light when we were born into the world. Presumably we still are a point of light, at least potentially.
“In him (the Christ) was life; and the life was the light of men.” There would be no consciousness, no ability to perceive, to understand anything, if it were not for the fact of life. The presence of life establishes what we call mind and the ability to experience emotion. Human beings act as though the fact that they have the ability to think is a cause, but it is only an effect. There is something which has produced this effect. One way of describing that “something” is light.

Memories of a Noble Profession

Whenever I attend church I’m likely to hear about flocks of sheep and good shepherds. The pastor will tell a noble story about a godly profession, but invariably I drift away into reminisces of cigarettes and polluted water that are my childhood memories of being a herder of sheep.

When I was nine years old my father bought several hundred sheep and immediately discovered that owning sheep in cattle country is not a good way to gain new friends or keep old ones. But that’s another story. My story is that my father hired me (bribed?) that summer to help herd the sheep for $1 a week (I could go home on weekends). This was a fortune to my nine-year-old eyes, for $1 in those days could buy 10 comic books or 20 ice cream cones -- assuming one could get to town, which I seldom did except on a school bus that made no stops for personal business.
Anyway, the deal was that I was to camp out with a wizened little old Mexican man (“as old as the hills” applied to him) and learn the responsibilities involved in being a shepherd and, according to my father’s instructions, to learn Spanish. Well, I lived for six weeks with that old Mexican and learned a little something about sheep but no Spanish because the talking was confined to occasional grunts. What I learned, to my father’s chagrin, was how to roll cigarettes. I am still adept at it. Those were the days of Bull Durham sacks with drawstrings you tightened with your teeth. I will always associate the thought of sheep with the memories of those cigarettes.
Another thing about the Mexican shepherd is that he ate canned sardines for lunch every day, and then would drink from the canteen and leave the stench of sardines in the water. I would just about gag when it was my turn to drink. For supper we ate from a pot of pinto beans heated over a campfire and sour dough bread baked in a Dutch oven.
Well, the summer ended and school started. Dad didn’t keep the sheepherder, as it was expensive, the coyote menace was diminished, and the sheep seemed to get along on their own. Except that they needed to be in the corral at night, and that became my job. As soon as I got off the school bus I had to saddle a horse and go get the sheep, who usually grazed on a mesa about two miles from the house. In the winter it was apt to be sundown or dusk by the time I reached the sheep, and it was a very cold and slow ride home. Sheep are the slowest creatures in the world! I learned that once I got the sheep started toward home they would finish on their own, so I would leave them and take off at a gallop for home and a place in front of the stove.
One evening the sheep didn’t show up at the corral. It got dark and supper was finished. My father asked me where the sheep were. All I could do was stammer that they were headed home last time I saw them. My father simply stared at me, didn’t say anything. I wanted to shrink down into the floorboards and disappear. He went out and brought the sheep in himself, and never said anything more about it.
From that day forward I made sure the sheep were home before I was.
Later that year, to my monumental relief, my dad sold the sheep and ended my days as a member of a noble profession.