It has occurred to me that Christmas is a season of “behold”:
“Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son...”
“And behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son”
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”
“for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”
Joseph didn’t know what to do about Mary’s pregnancy and “as he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord came to him...”.
“behold, a virgin shall be with child...”
“behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy..”
“And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon”
“said unto Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel”
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem...behold, there came to Jerusalem wise men from the East.”
“And, behold, the star, which they had seen in its rising, led them on until it came and stood over the place where the little child was.”
“When they had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph.”
“When Herod died, behold, an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.”
In my concordance for the King James Version of the Bible there are over 1200 listings of phrases that include the word, “behold”.
The shepherds beheld the angels while they were in the field with their sheep and they RAN to Bethlehem that they might behold this newborn baby boy. The people of Bethlehem came out of their homes to hear the shepherds’ story and they went to behold what the angels had predicted. Beholding is seeing, smelling, tasting. Beholding is living in the moment--it’s all about the experience of the living God. Therefore, the word behold is used to get people’s attention. Look, watch, and see what is happening right in front of you. Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
At Corby’s recommendation, I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church A Memoir of Faith”, and I was struck by something she wrote. “The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. [She lists a few “beholds” like I just did.] “Whether the narratives starred hayseed shepherds confronted by hosts of glittering angels or desert pilgrims watching something like a dove descend upon a man in a river as a voice from heaven called him “Beloved,” Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief, including Jesus’ own teaching that acts of mercy toward perfect strangers were acts of mercy toward him. While I understood both why and how the early church had decided to wrap those mysteries in protective layers of orthodox belief, the beliefs never seized my heart the way the mysteries did.” Later, she asks, “...is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have in common?”
I behold and I believe. When I read the nativity story from Luke during Christmas Eve service, I got goose bumps over my whole body. I could behold the story unfolding in that cave in Bethlehem. I could see the shepherds kneeling down and crowding into the small space around a little niche on the floor. Not the niche with the star of David in gold but the niche opposite in a little alcove like an animal stall. Now there is marble on the floor but when I was there, I got on my hands and knees and reached up to caress the limestone above it and I could imagine I could behold the baby there on the floor gazing up at that manger ceiling. No colorful mobiles to stimulate the mind--just smoke-stained limestone.
Wherever Joseph and Mary were staying by the time the Magi came, it wouldn’t have been much different. Jesus might have been moved from the manger to the family part of the cave home. It still wouldn’t have been the palace the Magi were expecting. Nonetheless, they came to behold this marvel--the one the cosmos had announced. Unlike the shepherds, they could afford expensive gifts and had prepared for the journey. Yet, they were in just as much awe as the shepherds and the townspeople.
In today’s Gospel story we see various reactions to this command to “behold”. Herod and the people of Jerusalem reacted with fear and suspicion. When the wise men ask where the king of the Jews was born, Herod consults the Jewish scholars and they quote Micah: “And you Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means the least among the leaders of Judah. For there shall come forth from you the leader, who will be a shepherd to my people Israel.” One would think the high priest would have at least sent a delegation out to Bethlehem (only 6 miles away) to check it out--but there is no record of this. So, Herod reacted with hostility toward the news of a new king born in Bethlehem. The priests and scribes appeared to be indifferent to the birth of this new leader for Israel--temple business as usual. The wise men went to great trouble and expense to find the new child, to worship him and to bring him the best gifts they could. This child would not rule over them--they were likely from Persia, but they made provisions for the journey, packed up their camels, and set out to see this prince the star had proclaimed. They wanted to behold him for themselves.
Herod hoped to use their enthusiasm against the child they hoped to behold. He asked them about the appearance of the star: when was it, where did you see it? He told them to return to Jerusalem and tell him about the child so he, too, could behold him.
The wise men were overjoyed to find the place where the star came to rest and to find a small child still wrapped in his mother’s arms. They worshipped him--offering the gift of gold for a king, the gift of frankincense for a priest, and the gift of myrrh for one who will die. And, I imagine, I behold this large group of magi-wise men-priests laying these gifts at Mary’s feet as they crowd into the cave in Bethlehem. Perhaps Jesus was walking by then and approached them with curiosity--maybe he was afraid of strangers. They found him in Mary’s arms and the gifts they provided would have allowed the little family to make their escape to Egypt.
When the wise men left the cave home behind, they had a dream that told them not to return to Herod because he wanted to harm the child--so they returned home another way. They had beheld a star in their homeland--a new, astronomical wonder--and their studies revealed the announcement of a new prince. They had to behold this wonderful event, so they got together gifts for a mortal king who was also a mediator of the holy. And, they got their wish--the child was still there wrapped in his mother’s arms and living under the light of the star.
So what are we called to behold? The Christmas story is full of images, dreams, pondering, worship and beholding. Let us pause and behold the child who is just like us. Let the goose bumps rise. Let the lump in the throat form and let our hearts run to Bethlehem to behold the newborn king. Let us live in this moment of Christmas before it steals away again.