What Kind of A King Would Do Such A Thing?
The angels are arranged in perfect rows. Thousands in a row and thousands of rows. Trailing out as far as the eye can see. They are radiant, barefooted and decked out to the nines. Glowing white. Glistening gold. Chiseled features. Blond, auburn, ebony hair. Beautiful, flowing gowns. The floor upon which they are dancing is reflective. Not sure what it's made of but it's shiny. Not a speck. Not a smudge. The guy closest to me has blonde hair to his waist. Pulled back in a ponytail of sorts. He, like all the rest, is a good bit taller than me. About four feet taller. He is imposing, muscled, arms extended, one foot resting behind the other, bent slightly at the waist, face pointing down. His wings stretch another ten feet into the sky and the tips are almost touching. He is frozen in time, holding the same choreographed pose he was holding when the music stopped. Along with everyone else, he is waiting for the music to begin again and send him into the next movement. Right now, he’s catching his breath and waiting for orders. Head bowed, a bead of sweat drips from his brow onto the mirrored floor. He is glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. There is a smirk on his face as if he knows something I don’t. He raises an eyebrow and then winks as if to say, You haven’t seen anything yet...
The air carries with it the fading echo of a drumbeat, and the receding sound of the concert of a million feet dancing and tapping to perfection. It's a powerful, penetrating rhythm. One I've never heard. And don’t ask me how they are tapping with bare feet. They just are. In the distance, like where the row of angels falls off the horizon, there is a bright light. Brighter than the sun. I squint and shade my eyes but it doesn't do any good. I can’t look at it. A strange light. Warm. Welcoming. Piercing. There’s not a shadow to be found. Anywhere. I am tucked up in a nook where the ceiling meets the wall. Sort of perched atop a rafter some forty feet off the floor. The breeze created by their wings washes over me and brings with it the smell of mint, rosemary, lavender, lemon and eucalyptus. As I spy down, it strikes me that this place, for lack of a better term, is a building. Although I use that word loosely. In truth, it’s as big as a town. An architectural wonder. Everything I can see is contained under this one enormous roof. The fact that the rafters can span that distance leaves me scratching my head.
The banquet hall of all banquet halls.
Rising on the air is a chorus of voices. They come from higher up. Thundering. Declaring. Proclaiming. Pure. Pitch perfect. While each is distinct, they layer over each other. One starts, speaking a line or two, and another begins. But they don't compete. Don't drown each other out. They form a melody. Rising. At one point a dozen voices are speaking at once and for some reason I can make out and understand them all. They are reading from an ancient text.
The first voice speaks of how He will be born of a woman. Another states that He will come from the line of Abraham. Another, the tribe of Judah. The House of David. Born of a virgin. Sit on the throne of David. An eternal throne. "Emmanuel." Born in Bethlehem. Worshipped by wise men. Presented with gifts. From Egypt. Called a Nazarene.
It strikes me as strange that one man could be from Egypt, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
While I ponder this, the voices continue — He will be zealous for His father. Filled with God's spirit. Heal many. Deal gently with Gentiles. Rejected by His own. Speak in parables. Enter triumphantly into Jerusalem. Praised by little children. A cornerstone. Perform miracles — which some would not believe. Betrayed for 30 pieces of silver that would be used to buy a potter's field. A man of sorrows. Acquainted with grief. Forsaken by His own best friends. Scourged. Spat on. Unrecognizable as a man. Crucified between two thieves. Given vinegar to drink. His hands and feet would be pierced. Others would gamble for and divide his clothes. Surrounded and ridiculed by His enemies. He would thirst, commend His spirit to His Father and that not one of His bones would be broken. Stared at in death, buried with the rich, raised from the dead, and that He would ascend and become a greater High Priest than Aaron. That He would rule the heathen. A ruling scepter. Seated at the right hand of God.
As the last word echoes off, all eyes turn toward the light several miles in the distance. The sky above me lights up with a Jumbotron several miles wide. A King is seated on His throne. Magnificent. To His right, sits His Son. Broad shoulders, the spitting image. A river flows from beneath His throne. In His hand, He holds a scepter. He is radiant. Nothing has ever been, is, or will be more perfect. Around us, a chorus, several million voices strong, rises: Glory to God in the highest! The shimmering angelic bodies below snap into unison once more. Twirling. Tapping. Synchronized. Each dancer has 6 wings. Two cover their faces. Two cover their feet. And with two more they fly. It is the most acrobatic-ballet-tap dance-thing I've ever witnessed. Cirque do Soleil doesn't hold a candle. Grammar school.
The King beckons and the Son inches forward on his throne. Eyes scanning the crowd. Splendor indescribable. My eyes are glued. His hair is white, eyes are a flame of fire, His voice is like the sound of rushing waters, Niagara or the break at Pipeline. He is wearing a sword and His name is written across His thigh. As His head turns from right to left and back to the right, this place erupts. Thunderous.
Absent any fanfare, he stands. In an instant, in a microsecond, voices hush. Every angel kneels. Bowing. Face to the floor. Each tongue confessing the greatness of the One now standing. Twenty-four crowns lie on the ground in a circle around him —as do the twenty-four elders who once wore them.
The Son is quiet. Unassuming. No need to draw attention. He is comfortable in His skin yet not feeling that equality with the King is something to be grasped. His mannerisms are that of a dove. His presence that of a lion. His attraction like the bright morning star. He takes another long hard look around, and I sense a longing. Almost a goodbye. Slowly, He turns and places His scepter gently in the corner of His throne. Unbuckling His sword, He leans it upright next to the scepter. Next, He takes off His robe, folds it and places it in the seat He just occupied. He wiggles out of a linen, tasseled undershirt and places it neatly next to his robe. Finally, He removes the ring from his finger and lifts His crown off His brow, placing both atop His folded robe.
Save a loincloth, the Son stands naked. He kisses His Father on the cheek, whispers something none of the rest of us can hear, then His Father stands, hugs Him and I think I see a tear fall. The Son steps down off His throne, descends a long series of pearl and gold steps and emerges out into the middle of the millions who quickly step aside, making way. Voices rise from every corner singing at the top of their lungs. It is the loudest singing I’ve ever heard. Glory to God... Angels bow. Brush the floor. He pats many on the shoulder. Kisses some. Hugs others. Long-held embraces. Finally, having reached the exit, He leans against two giant doors that lead out into the Milky Way but before He steps out, He turns, looks at me and smiles. How He found me amidst the millions of others, I have no idea. But, His eyes…piercing, penetrating, inviting…I’ve never anything like them. He waves to me. Then He turns, facing the crowd. Pin-drop silence ensues. His voice carries across the rafters. "I will return. And when I do, I’ll be bringing a few back with me.”
Then He is gone.
The night is cold. I can see my breath. Gone is my rafter. I’m lying on my stomach on a stone shelf in the back of a cave. It’s dark. Below me, candlelight washes across a young girl in labor. She might be thirteen. The man sitting between her legs to catch the baby is her soon-to-be-husband but he's not the father of the baby. It's a scandal. Rumors everywhere. There are animals about. The setting is more cave than barn. And certainly not a stable like I’m used to. It’s little more than a hole carved into the side of a stone hill. It is damp. Dirty. Piled with manure. The place smells of defecation and urine. The mother is screaming now. Pushing. Knees up around her face. The baby's head appears and the father's jaw drops. He is shaking. She is exhausted. It is a bloody, gooey mess. They seem so innocent. I can't understand why they chose this place but the town around them seems busy. Something going on. The sign at the city limit reads, “Bethlehem.”
He catches the bald baby, who is crying. Covered in white paste. Smeared with blood. Arms and legs are moving for the first time. His eyes are covered in a sticky, pasty goo as he tries to open them. The Father places the baby on the mother's heaving, sweaty chest and the baby cries. The mother cries, too. After a few moments, she presses the baby to her bosom where the baby suckles and I can hear the faint sound of swallowing. The baby's hands are clutched. Small fists. Slowly, he opens and closes them. His feet wiggle. His eyes open and close but his pupils are all over the place. Not focusing anywhere. The mother focuses on the baby while the father focuses on the afterbirth.
Later that night, the mother is tired. Father is, too. Long day. Arms weary, she hands him the baby. The Father has no place to lay the boy so clears out a feed trough. The wood stinks like sour feed and is stained with horse saliva and scuffed and splintered with teeth marks. He stuffs the crude box with hay, wraps the baby in linen and lays him in it. They are dozing when several dirty outcasts appear holding a torch telling a crazy story about how an angel appeared. Somewhere out in the night. Something about a messiah. Something about salvation for all mankind. The parents are not surprised. They peel back the blankets. The boy is sleeping. The men bow, stare, and leave singing.
Eight days later, the mother has recovered. The boy is growing. Healthy. The father, a Jew, sharpens his knife, lays the boy naked on the ground and slices off his foreskin. The baby cries. More bleeding. The mother feeds him to comfort him. His eyes are clear now. Able to focus. He is sucking and swallowing. It’s the first time he has looked at me. His eyes are familiar.
Not quite two years pass. The boy has grown. He’s walking now. The father is bouncing him on his knee when well-dressed men appear. Bringing gifts. Gold. The kind used in a crown. Frankencense. When burnt it makes a beautiful aroma. And myrrh. To be used when embalming a dead body.
The parents are grateful. The reigning king, Herod, has heard rumor of a competing king so he is killing all the children younger than two. The mother and father will use the gold when they are forced to escape to Egypt. After a meal, the men leave, returning a different way.
The boy grows in name and stature and favor. A good-looking kid. Strong hands. Calloused. Helps his dad a lot. Plays with his siblings. Spends a lot of time in the temple. His knowledge of the Law is uncanny.
My view changes. Less zoom. More wide angle. I helicopter up and the road on which he is standing stretches out through time allowing me to travel rapidly the timeline of his life. To see the whole of it. To know it before he knows it.
Many years in the distance, the boy — now man — does some wonderful things. Miraculous. The blind see. Lame walk. Dead come back to life. Demons cast out. Devoted people follow him. Thousands gather to hear him. He walks on water. Feeds thousands with a bag lunch. He is paraded into a city set on a hill where they try to make him a king. A few days later, at a dinner, he lifts bread, "Take my body, eat..." I think back to the feed trough and I'm struck by the irony. A week later he is betrayed by one of his best friends, by a kiss no less, and arrested. His friends scatter, he is beaten mercilessly by a Roman scourge until he is unrecognizable as a man. Here, I lose my breath. The flesh on his back, sides and even some on his face is gone. I see bone.
They goad Him up a road, forcing him to carry a tree to a lonely hill. He stumbles and falls, so weak he is unable to carry it, so they drag another man out of the crowd. Make him carry it. At the top of the hill, outside the city, the same soldiers nail him to the tree, and slam it into the ground. He lasts several hours before dying alongside two other common men. Scattered around him, his friends, and mother, stare.
My eyes search the road. All the way back. To the cave. The feed trough. I connect the dots.
The realization is not kind to me.
That road leads from the innocence of the crude wooden box to the barbarity of the crude splintered tree. Not to mention the fact that he is innocent. Never did a thing wrong. Nothing to deserve that Cross.
I am scratching my head. I want to warn him. Tap him on the shoulder. “Hey...you need to get off this road.”
The helicopter drops and I’m standing back in the cave. Zoom again. Firelight glowing on my face. Parents are sleeping. It is a night much like tonight. The baby boy lies in the feed trough. His eyes crack and he looks at me. Surprisingly, they are clear. Crystal. It hits me. I shake my head and look again. It's the Son of the King.
I point to the end of the road. “This does not end well for you.”
He stares. Nods. “I know.”
But that makes no sense whatsoever. I ask, “Why would you leave all that for this? I mean. Glory. Throne. Praise. Unending devotion and worship. Or…” I wave my hand across the filthy floor of the cave, “Manure. Blood. Entry through a woman's legs. Helplessness. Unable to feed yourself. Eyes that can't focus. Crying. Knowing hunger. Piercing pain. Walking toward a gruesome, lonely, savage death.”
I think back to the angelic voices I heard earlier. The words they read from the ancient text. Along the road he walks, every one of them comes true.
It usually takes me a few weeks but, at least once a year, I try to get to this place. Standing next to the trough. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of static in the way. I mean there are the lists, the shopping, the crowds, the traffic, the cost, the wrapping, the arguments, the movies, the keeping of a tight schedule, the end of year bookkeeping stuff with my business, the…
But some years, like this year, I push pause, peel back the layers and find myself with fingertips on the trough — reading teeth marks like braille. Smelling manure and urine. Fresh cut hay. The smell of a baby. Listening to him sleep. Sticking my nose close to His. Feeling His breath on my face. And every time I am struck with a singular avalanche of emotion. What kind of King does this? I mean, seriously. Doesn’t He know better?
As this thought swims through my head, His eyes crack and I catch a glimpse. Of Him looking at me. He glances up, above us, and I am taken back to the throne room where I watched Him disrobe. Unbuckle. Fold. Lift off a crown. Lay down a sword. A scepter. Walk naked. Push on the door. And there I can hear the echo of his whisper. “I will return.” And somewhere in my gut, down in the deepest part of me, where all that I love is held dear, where His words are written and seared on the inside of me, where truth lives, I realize that He knew then what I know now. He knew where the road led before He stood up. Had known for thousands of years. Longer. It strikes me as inconceivable that he knew His return to that throne took Him down that road. Through that trough. To that cross.
And yet He still stood up. Disrobed.
And here’s the part that cracks me down the middle. I want to be with Him, clinging to my rafter in a brightly-lit world where He’s King, but something in me knows that I can’t get there on my own. I need help. I’m disqualified. Too filthy to make the crossing. I’ve done stuff that has separated me from Him and my soul is so far in debt that I can’t pay my way out. Ever. My only chance is Him. He’s my only Hope. He eyes that road, raises an eyebrow and I realize that I need Him to walk that road. So as much as I don’t want Him to, as much as it pains me, I step back. Step aside. Shut my mouth and watch Him walk from the trough to the cross. And when they drive in the nails, and drop Him in the hole, I scream because I am in pain and I am so very sorry.
It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sitting at my desk, salty tears hanging in the corner of my mouth. I have just returned from the store where the TV above the checkout counter depicted the weather man using NORAD to track Santa’s movement across Iceland? Really? Is this what we’ve come to? Is that the best we can do?
Head in my hands, I feel His hand on my shoulder, His whisper in my ear. Breath on my cheek. I want to wave Him off cause I’m not worthy. I protest but He presses His finger to my lips while my fingers type. He’s smiling. “I got this. It what I do.”
“But…” I can’t talk.
He thumbs away my tears. Combs my hair with his fingers. “I know. But you’re worth it.”
“But you don’t know…”
He laughs. “Yes. I do.”
“But, you’re so good and I am so…not.” The weight of this presses me to the floor. Crushing. He lifts me. We helicopter again. Back in the banquet hall. We bypass my rafter and He deposits me on the step at His feet where He retakes His seat. Right next to His Father. This time He’s dressed in white. Wearing His crown. His eyes are fire. Feet of burnished bronze. This time He has a set of keys on his belt. Dangling. I can hear them clanging. He didn’t have those last time we were here. The voices around me are singing again. Louder. Dancers are dancing. Eucalyptus in the air. Not a shadow in the house.
The enormity hits me. The weight of it pulls me down. I slither to the floor. My knees beneath me. Face reflecting back at me. In an instant, He is kneeling next to me. His hand on my shoulder. Face next to mine. Content to wait.
What can I say? I mean, what can I possibly say to the King?
Somewhere in there, face pressed to the floor, tears and snot dripping off my nose, his breath on my neck, I come to grips with the beautiful, tender, magnificent, barbaric, soul-shattering, eternal, unequivocal reality that this thing we call Christmas is simply my King’s first step from the trough to the Cross.