When I look toward Bethlehem on this first Sunday of Advent, I’m afraid all I see is bedlam. We may sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” but the world seems anything but still. Bethlehem and Bedlam are not far apart. In fact, Bedlam was the popular name for the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem, a sixteenth-century insane asylum in London, “Bethlehem” being shortened to “Bedlam” in the parlance of the time. It’s an historical note that seems fitting today.
Headlines continue to speak of wars and rumors of wars; the national and global economies are as reactive and uncertain as ever; no one seems able to make any sense of the new national health-insurance law; and the start of the season when we celebrate the Prince of Peace is again marred by frenzy and violence in the marketplaces where we go to purchase tokens of love. In our congregation, we fumble through the bedlam of change as those with a commitment to this community continue the quest to discern the new identity and mission God is preparing us for.
I can’t even get away from the craziness in the safe harbor of home. Construction – in our kitchen, of all places – that we hoped to have completed before Thanksgiving is dragging into Advent, invading our personal sanctuary and disrupting our holiday plans. Even our two dogs are showing the stress that Sheryl and I feel, more stress than we’ve lived with in a long time. It’s bedlam here.
It was bedlam in Bethlehem, too. Remember the innkeeper on what must have been the busiest day of his business life, with people from all over the world coming home for the Roman census? How was he to cope with the crowds and make room for one more guest? When that young couple came to his door – and her pregnant, and every room in town booked – he must have felt desperate. “How ‘bout the stable?” he might have muttered under his breath, without looking up from his ledger. “Try the stable.”
Remember the shepherds and their experience? They were simply trying to do their job as crowds clogged the roads and added to the confusion. There was the burden of a government census; the dark shadow of political intrigue and foreign soldiers marching in the streets; people pushing and shoving, causing shortages of food and wine and scrambling for shelter anywhere they could find it, even in places that might have normally sheltered shepherds and sheep.
But just when I want to run away to seek the cradle of Christ in calmer, more peaceful conditions, I remember, it was in such bedlam in Bethlehem that the first Christmas came. Precisely in the midst of chaos, Christmas happened, Christ broke into our world. The mystery and grace of God’s incarnation is this: God doesn’t wait for a cradle of calm and order and peace. Rather, God’s living presence breaks through when we are least prepared, most frenzied and disordered, and most vulnerable.
In our preparation for Christmas, we don’t have to choose between Bethlehem and bedlam. Bethlehem doesn’t follow or replace the bedlam of our lives. Bethlehem and bedlam always go together; incarnation and chaos are aspects of the same fabric of our existence. Bethlehem reveals itself in the midst of bedlam and transforms it. The gift of seeing God’s presence is not always wrapped in colorful paper and shiny bows; often it is concealed in darkness and chaos. And once in a while, if only for a brief moment, we’re blessed with seeing it before the star blinks out and the angel voices grow still.
Only grace will open our eyes to God’s advent. Like waiting for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis, we must wait patiently and expectantly for the revelation; it cannot be seized on our terms. We can only wait like those who watch for the first sign of dawn, trusting God’s impeccable timing. And the breakthrough comes in the shy and unexpected way it always has of coming.
After it was all over, the magi went home. The innkeeper went back to renting rooms and putting down fresh hay in the manger. The shepherds went back to tending sheep and warming themselves against the cold night. Their own challenges were still there waiting for them, and the chaos enveloped them again and again in season.
They would return to dealing with wars and rumors of wars, with the chaos of life out of their control, and with the continuing cycle of birth and growth and decline and death – and through it all, the doubts of faith. But for all of them, for once, something extraordinary broke through into their ordinary lives, something from beyond the pale of this world. And they were never the same again.
When that will happen for you or me, I cannot say. But I’m confident it will not be when our lives are neat and picture-pretty. It will be squarely in the midst of bedlam, when we’re at our wits’ end. So today it’s good to recall the words of Jesus: “Keep alert; keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:33-37).