Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Where Is the Christ of Christmas?

We almost never encounter God when, where, or how we thought we might. Divine encounters usually come as a surprise, fully recognized as an epiphany after the fact. We are like Jacob, in days of old, who experienced a divine encounter as he slept in the open with a stone for a pillow. God spoke to him in a dream, and when he awoke from his sleep, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16).

After the death of Jesus, two of his saddened followers were on their way home to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. A stranger joined them on the way. They were so betaken with his wisdom and understanding that when they arrived at Emmaus they persuaded him to stay with them for the evening meal. When he was at table with them, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. Immediately they realized that the stranger was the risen Jesus. When they recognized him, he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:13-32).

God is subtle. Samuel Miller reminds us that, "We never see God directly. God is mediated to us by the very things that seem to deny him". A woman at the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., prayed before each food distribution, "O Lord, we know you will be passing through this line today. Make us gracious servants whether we recognize you or not".

As we look for Jesus during this holy season, let me share a poem by Edwin Markham that may be helpful. It is entitled, "How the Great Guest Came". This poem suggests how we may find the Christ of Christmas. It is a "story poem" about a simple cobbler in a European village many years ago. His faith was so palpable, and he was so beloved by all who knew him, that when he died they built a cathedral where his cobbler shop had been.

_Before the cathedral in grandeur rose at Ingelburg where the Danube goes;

Before the forest of silver spires went airily up in the clouds and fires;

Before the oak had ready a beam, while yet the arch was stone and dream --

There where the altar was later laid, Conrad, the cobbler, plied his trade.

It happened one day at the year's white end, two neighbors called on their old-time friend;

And they found the shop, so meager and mean, made gay with a hundred boughs of green.

Conrad was stitching with face ashine, but suddenly stopped as he twitched a twine:

"Old friends, good news! At dawn today, as the cocks were scaring the night away,

The Lord appeared in a dream to me, and said, 'I am coming your Guest to be!'

So I have been busy with feet astir, strewing the floor with branches of fir.

The wall is washed and the shelf is shined, and over the rafter the holly is twined.

He comes today, and the table is spread with milk and honey and wheaten bread."

His friends went home, and his face grew still as he watched for the shadow across the sill.

He lived all the moments o'er and o'er, when the Lord should enter the lowly door--

The knock, the call, the latch pulled up, the lighted face, the offered cup.

He would wash the feet where the spikes had been, he would kiss the hands where the nails went in,

Then at last would sit with Him and break the bread as the day grew dim.

While the cobbler mused there passed his pane a beggar drenched by the driving rain.

He called him in from the stony street and gave him shoes for his bruised feet.

The beggar went and there came a crone, her face with wrinkles of sorrow sown.

A bundle of fagots bowed her back, and she was spent with wrench and rack.

He gave her his loaf and steadied her load as she took her way on the weary road.

Then to his door came a little child, lost and afraid in the world so wild,

In the big, dark world. Catching it up, he gave it the milk in the waiting cup,

And led it home to its mother's arms, out of the reach of the world's alarms.

The day went down in the crimson west and with it the hope of the blessed Guest,

And Conrad sighed as the world turned gray: "Why is it, Lord, that your feet delay?

Did you forget that this was the day?" Then soft in the silence a Voice he heard:

"Lift up your heart, for I kept my word.

Three times I came to your friendly door;

Three times was my shadow on your floor.

I was the beggar with bruised feet;

I was the woman you gave to eat;

I was the child on the homeless street!"

I hear a Voice saying: "If you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me"._

Can you hear that Voice? It is the Christ of Christmas!