Lessons for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas I): Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and, Luke 2:1-20
The image of shepherds in the idyllic, gentle, pastoral setting finds its way into many of our Christmas cards, creche scenes, and mental preparations for Christmas. One often finds the gentle man or boy with a crook, dressed in soft muted robes, looking out on the gentle pasture. It’s lovely! But, here’s the thing: I have known some shepherds in my life. My grandfather spent his first ten years of life in a shepherding village. If the stories that I’ve heard told are even half true, then shepherding is not the idyllic life that we imagine. Indeed, shepherding was a dirty job for hard-scrabble men who spent long nights awake in the cold or asleep on the rocky ground. Shepherds were scorned, not allowed in the local cafe because they smelled like sheep, and, even in the parish church, there was the “shepherds row” set aside in the back of the church for men who came down from the hills. In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s lands. They weren’t the pleasant Hallmark faces we’re used to seeing this time of year. We have sentimentalized them so on our Christmas cards and art that they look like gentle folk waiting to go to a homecoming celebration. No picture is farther from reality.
Now, in Luke’s narrative, notice to whom the angels first go to share the news of Jesus! Notice whom the angels tell. It’s shepherds!! Maybe I’d really have some sort of blockbuster, Star Wars sort of announcement – angels parading through the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming from the Temple to all the religious leaders what God was doing, and demonstrating to the king and governor what was happening in Bethlehem. But, instead of going to the proud and the powerful and the rich, the angels are sent by God to shepherds. I wonder why?
I think the angels were sent to the shepherds because it was unto such as these that God came – born of a virgin, Emmanuel. Here is a picture of Jesus, the One sent to the lowly and outcast, for people like the shepherds. In Luke’s story, the shepherds become a metaphor for the kind of people Jesus came to save.
Listen to the power of the story:
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”Luke 2:8-11, NRSV
The angels came to shepherds where they were living, doing what they did every day and every night. They were going through the routine of their ordinary life. I think that the angels were sent to the shepherds because it was night, and they were awake, doing their ordinary work. A shepherd’s work was never really done. Shepherds were awake at night – at least some of them.
And so, in the midst of their work, an angel appeared to them. They were afraid – terrified with terrible terror is maybe a better translation of the Greek notion – because for most of their lives they had been taught that the appearance of the angel of God was an omen. God’s judgment was coming upon them – but not only upon them, upon all Israel – but not only upon all Israel, upon all the world. Indeed, God’s judgment was coming, but the angel allays their fears:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord…”Luke 2:10-11, NRSV
The angel allays their fears and the heavens open with glorious acclamation. In the midst of their living and doing the ordinary, the shepherds encountered an extraordinary God. The shepherds must have been surprised that God broke into their ordinary lives. But that seems to be the way of God, right?
Sometimes God might appear, as God did to Abraham, and we might look up and see three angels standing near (Gen. 18). Sometimes God might appear in a dream, as with Jacob (Gen. 28). Sometimes God might appear, like God did to Elijah, in the sheer silence (1 Kings 19). Sometimes, maybe it’s like the Road to Emaus when Jesus just shows up on the journey and teaches us a lesson, and we only recognize the divine presence in the breaking of the bread. Sometimes it’s on the seashore, or on the mountain, or in the valley. Sometimes it’s at an inn, and the inn is full. We just don’t know because God in Christ breaks into our lives when we least expect it, in the ordinary times of our ordinary lives.
God met the shepherds in their ordinary lives, when and where they least expected to be met. Maybe that’s part of what the story of Jesus’ birth is about: God is wanting to break into our lives, into our ordinary. Are we afraid? “Fear not,” the angel says and be ready in your ordinariness to receive good news of great joy?
Indeed, listen to the shocking way Paul tells the story of God come among us, that Christ Jesus
“…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”Phil 2:7, NRSV
That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about! God meets us, not on high holy days, but on ordinary days, in ordinary places, in our human likeness. The birth of this child is about God coming to us in our everyday lives and the angel saying to us,
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy…” ()Luke 2:10, NRSV
It’s about God meeting us in our pain and loneliness. It’s about God meeting us in our frustration and anger. It’s about God meeting us Monday and Wednesday and Friday. It’s about God stooping down – condescending – to be a part of our very real existence, in the every day.
God met the shepherds in their ordinary lives and God wants to meet you there also!
So, when God announces the birth to the shepherds first, it’s about showing to whom God was coming. But, there is more to it. There is something else there for us to remember.
I went to Mass in Tallahassee at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More. It was a Sunday in January or February. I remember because it was cold. About five minutes into the homily, there was a bit of a commotion from the entrance of the Church as three men walked in – wild hair, holey jeans, and ratty shirts, shoes but no socks. It was a full Sunday but there were seats if people would scoot to the middle of the pews. But people were looking a bit uncomfortable, feigning attention to what was assuredly a riveting homily, and no one moved. The men were making a bit more of a commotion as they went up the side aisle. Eventually, they just sat down on the floor.
At which time our deacon slowly rose from his seat. In his eighties, he was a university professor, a distinguished man with silver-gray hair, and known as a stickler for propriety. He walked with a cane, and everyone thought, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. They’re making a scene and think they can just sit there on the floor?” It took him a minute to reach the men. Although the priest was continuing on with his homily, most had their attention fixed on the deacon, awaiting what was sure to come – a lesson in propriety. And then, when the deacon reached the men, he dropped his cane, and with difficulty, he lowered himself to the floor. “May I sit with you?”
I think that’s why God sent the angels to the shepherds – to let us know that the child to be born was for all people. You see, that’s what the the annunciation to the shepherds means to me:
Radical action. Radical behavior. Radical gospel. Radical Savior. Radical God.
And the heavenly chorus sang glory to God. After this powerful display of praise, the shepherds just had to see for themselves, so they ran off to Bethlehem to experience what the angels had told them. When they got to Bethlehem,
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.Luke 2:16-18, NRSV
Christmas is a unique time, it’s a special time, an extraordinary time. The real question for us is, “Are we ready to live the Christmas life year-round?” Are we ready to allow Jesus to break in the ordinary?
Maybe we will be too struck by the “routine-ness” of it all, the “normalness” of it all. We will have come from angels singing glory to God, to the daily ticking of the clock. The challenge for us is always to find ways of celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary moments of everyday life – the smile of a friend, the sharing of a meal, the beauty of good music.
Here’s a challenge, perhaps. Keep the crèche up – or at least a part of it, maybe a shepherd to remind us all year of God’s inbreaking into the ordinary and or our invitation to live a radical gospel.