While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time was fulfilled for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son (Luke 2:6–7).
“When the time was fulfilled…” These words have such redeeming power! In the midst of our daily life we often preoccupy ourselves with those things we think serve God and his cause. We work until we are weary to the bone and yet see so little fruit. Does everything remain as it was? Haven’t we made any progress? Have we actually helped at all, or have we merely scratched the surface of things? Is there any trace or glimpse of the goal we long for? What do all our efforts amount to in the face of all the forces of misery and evil in the world?
Left before such agonizing questions, it is good to remember the light that shines from the stable of Bethlehem, for it is here we are able to sense what it means that the kingdom of God came as a little child.
Christmas did not come after a great horde of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of the Father which he lays into those arms that are stretched out in longing. This is how the first Christmas came; in this way it always comes anew, both to us as individuals and to the whole world.
Perhaps you have waited for years to be freed from some need or sin. For a long, long time you have looked out from the darkness in search of the light. Maybe you have a difficult problem that hasn’t been solved, in spite of great efforts. But then, when the time is fulfilled and God’s hour arrives, a solution, light, and deliverance will come quite unexpectedly. Perhaps quite differently than you might think? Hasn’t this happened to you before, just as babies come in their own time, and no impatience or hurrying can compel it – but then it comes with its blessing and full of the wonder of God? Hasn’t God’s help come to you sometimes in this way?
This is how it will be with our yearning for redemption. When we are discouraged by the apparently slow progress of all our honest efforts, by the failure of this or that person, and by the ever new reappearance of enemy powers and their apparent victories, then we should know: the time shall be fulfilled. Because of the noise and activity of the struggle and the work, we often do not hear the hidden gentle sound and movement of the life that is coming into being. But here and there, at hours that are blessed, God lets us feel how he is everywhere at work and how his cause is growing and moving forward. The time is being fulfilled and the light shall shine, perhaps just when it seems that the darkness is impenetrable.
Is it true that God only laughs at our efforts and that all our strivings cannot avail – that we are to receive everything only as a gift? How wonderful is the answer given to us by the mystery of the child! Just as the mother knows that her own surrender, care, and faithful readiness must be present along with God’s working and creating, and just as every life comes into being through a working together of God and humanity, so it is also in the highest things, in the breaking in of divine life.
Yes, it is a gift when our need is relieved and the darkness is illuminated, and it is true that what is best must be given to us and that we could never produce it ourselves. But our efforts always belong to God’s work, even when it is only to keep the manger prepared in which the Child wants to lie. Our deeds count, even when like Simeon we only stretch out our arms in patience and faith and in loyal endurance so that we may receive the holy gift. Even when we only wait, poor and yearning in the darkness, in fervent longing – we are ready and may help to bring about the fullness of time.
The miracle of God comes not only from above. It also comes through us; it is also dwelling in us. It has been given to every person, and it lies within each one of us as something divine, and it waits. Calling to us, it waits for the hour when we shall open wide our hearts, having found our God and our home. When this is so, we will not hoard this miracle but will let it flow out into the world. Wherever love proceeds from us and becomes truth, the time is fulfilled and Christmas comes.
Adapted from When the Time Was Fulfilled (Walden, NY: Plough, 2007). Since the 1960s, this beloved meditation has been attributed to Eberhard Arnold, and it even has an archival code to reflect this (EA 315a). Recent searches, however, have turned up no German original, and it is improbable that Arnold wrote the text. We have decided to continue hosting it here in view of its popularity.
Article edited for length and clarity.