Reading: “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973” by Madeleine L’Engle
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
The story of Comet Kohoutek is a rather comical one, really. I knew nothing about it until I did a little research after reading this L’Engle poem. Some of our readers might actually remember these events, but for those who don’t, here’s a quick summary.
In the spring of 1973, German astronomer Dr. Lubos Kohoutek discovered a comet out near Jupiter’s orbit. He and others quickly became convinced that, as the comet neared earth, it would become “the comet of the century,” a singular visual spectacle that would grace our skies just in time for the holiday season.
People took this news and ran with it.
With a few months to prepare, people arranged star gazing tours and even a cruise out into remote places to watch this sure-to-be-spectacular event.
But it wasn’t spectacular. The comet did not increase in visibility the way the astronomers hoped. It only became visible around December 28 and only just-so. Hundreds of Christmas star-watching tours ended in disappointment. Dr. Kohoutek himself was meant to give a lecture on “his” comet aboard a cruise but missed it because he was too busy being sick over the side of the boat.
What was supposed to be a grand spectacle to herald the holiday seasons turned out to be nothing but a dark sky and a giant disappointment.
I wonder if the comet had actually passed by when L’Engle wrote this poem, or if she had written it in expectation of the coming celestial beauty. But really it doesn’t matter. “This is not time for a child to be born,” L’Engle writes. She was right in 1973 and it holds true here at the end of 2022.
War, economic instability, erratic weather patterns—none of these things point toward a world safe and worth of children. The rather comical fiasco that was comet Kohoutek is a testament to the ways in which our expectations rarely play out the way we hope. It’s also a testament to the absurdity of human beings. This is no place for children.
And yet, L’Engle reminds us, it is precisely into this absurd, war-torn, unstable, erratic world that Christ was born. This world is no place for children and that is exactly why Jesus came to be with us. Jesus came that this world, so bent and broken in so many ways, might be healed. Jesus came that our dark skies might be filled with light.
This is a risky world, but “Love still takes the risk of birth.”
God of the cosmos, the Christmas sky of 1973 was not filled with light as humanity hoped, but dark and cold—a testament to our own darkness. Even now in 2022 we wonder if our skies will remain dark. And yet, in the midst of this darkness, you promise us your son, the light that no darkness can overcome. Fill our hearts with hope. Remind us that even if the skies remain dark, the light of your son burns brightly within us all.