Two Nights

This is a reflection paper that I wrote in the fall of 2009 for my New Testament survey class in seminary. I’m posting it now because it came up in a conversation.

Luke is the only canonical Gospel that includes the birth narrative. What are we to make of that?

Psalm 23 declares, “Thou art with me.” An individual woman or man is speaking directly to God about God’s presence with her or him personally. It is, as far as I know, unique in all of Scripture in stating this truth in this way. What are we to make of that?

My own contemplative prayer practice has evolved while I’ve been at seminary. Adapting Thich Nhat Hanh’s breath prayer, I found that I could center myself for worship by repeating silently, “Breathing in, Your spirit enters and fills me. Breathing out, I love.” I began to use it in other settings. When I was walking the labyrinth this summer, it helped me to focus on the spiritual, as it soothed and quieted the mental. Seeking to detach from the physical as well, I switched to something even simpler, with no reference to breath. As I walked, I repeated, and contemplated, a pair of four-word selections from Scripture: “Thou art with me. Thy will be done.”

“Lovely,” I hear the reader ask, “but what has this to do with Luke’s birth narrative?”

The birth narrative in Chapter 2 is one of only two scenes in Luke that takes place at night. The other is Jesus’ last night in this life, on the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These two night scenes frame Jesus’ life. Their literary function is that they help to unify a long, meandering story: reading about the last night reminds us of, and carries us back to, the first night. But what is their gospel function?

Let’s return for a moment to my contemplative prayer. Its two parts together summarize, for me, the essentials of my faith. The deceptive simplicity of “Thou art with me” actually encompasses complex wisdom about the nature of God and the nature of my relationship with God. Ours is a personal God, addressed directly, and addressed with familiar, rather than formal, pronouns. While this God may be in Heaven, as many gods are said to be, our God is also as immanent as can be – right here with me. Similarly, “Thy will be done” is a nugget whose small size belies the magnitude of its meaning. It is not only an acknowledgement that our God indeed has a will for us, inviting us to learn what it might be; it is also our promise of commitment to serving that will.

Moreover, the two parts of the prayer are interrelated.  To apprehend God’s will can be terrifying – awe-full. Sureness of God’s presence with me is the only thing that can comfort me enough to feel safe in the face of this awe. Going through the prayer in the other direction, it says that, while God’s presence with me may be comforting, it is not enough to give the relationship its full meaning. The second half is the necessary further development – my reciprocation of God’s presence is my acceptance of God’s will and its implications for how I am to live.

The two nighttime scenes in Luke teach lessons similar to those of the prayer. The Nativity, especially with the intimate detail of Luke’s story, is a narrative way of expressing “Thou art with me,” God’s presence is now here, in our human world. On the Mount of Olives, the very last prayer we hear from Jesus’ lips, even as he is fully cognizant of the gravity of the moment, is “Thy will be done.” Ultimately, a relationship with God calls us to whatever is necessary to fulfill God’s intention for humanity.

Just as most of the rest of Luke’s Gospel narrative tells the story that links those two scenes, the rest of his Gospel message explores the implications of the two principles that the scenes represent. It fills in the spaces to help us understand the connections between love and service, between comfort and call, between birth and death, between “with me” and “Thy will.”

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