The gospel reading for Christmas from St. Luke combines the extraordinary with the ordinary, the heavenly with the earthly. It tells an astonishing story but one that is also everyday. For St. Luke, who God is/becomes clear to us in the most mundane human events, the birth of a baby, lying in an animal’s feed trough, accompanied by his parents, and visited by curious well-wishers.
Many of us I suspect have a sentimental, greeting-card perception of the Christmas story, but sentimentality is a caricature of reality, and in St. Luke’s rather straightforward report of the shepherds who bear witness to the birth of Jesus the Christ we find a story that is altogether real.
We know that Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph, have travelled to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, which is descended from the great king David. In the vicinity of Bethlehem there are shepherds, doing their ordinary work of tending their flocks. This is the same countryside where David himself, before he became king, worked as a shepherd, so it is no accident that the Christmas message is proclaimed to shepherds, who have worked these fields for many generations.
But within this ordinary scene something extraordinary intrudes: an angel, a messenger of God.
We probably have a sentimental view of angels as well; maybe we picture them as gentle and even pretty creatures, but in the Bible angels almost always tell people they visit “Do not be afraid,” because they are apparently terrifying presences. To be visited by an angel, to be surrounded by the glory of God and God’s messengers, is to be struck with fear.
The first message of Christmas, though, the first message spoken by the angel to the shepherds is that we do not need to fear any more. Do not be afraid, but instead, hear some good news.
And what is this good news? That in nearby Bethlehem a child has been born. Now the birth of a child is always exciting for the child’s parents and immediate family at least. But it’s not usually exciting for total strangers. How can this birth be “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people?”
Only if this most ordinary of events, the birth of a child, is also completely extraordinary, indeed the most extraordinary birth there has ever been. For this is no ordinary baby. “To you is born this day in the city of David a 1.) Savior, who is 2.) Christ 3.) the Lord.” This baby is a savior, a Messiah, the Lord, the king of the universe.
Here again we have to be on guard against sentimentality. It is easy to get sappy around a baby, to tickle him under the chin and imagine he is our plaything. But this baby is the Son of God. This baby is God’s own adventure among humanity. This baby is 1.) a Savior because he is born to save all people from everything that oppresses the human heart, to deliver us from anxiety, from fear, from addiction, from despair. This baby is 2.) the Christ or Messiah whose mission is to bring true peace to all humanity, allowing us to rest securely in who we are before God and who we are before one another. Finally, this baby is the 3.) Lord, the true king who doesn’t cling to power but serves his subjects, humbly putting others first. This baby is a new king David, a king who is also a shepherd, a shepherd who doesn’t sleep in a palace but stays awake at night in the open field watching over his flock, a king who is content to lie in an animal’s trough.
Perhaps the shepherds have been waiting for this good news, for they believe it right away. The angels don’t have to tell them to go looking for this boy king; they just do. They have been given a sign, that the child is lying in a manger, and so they find him: the savior and lord of all in the humblest circumstances. St. Luke once more unites the ordinary and extraordinary: The shepherds go looking for something astonishing; what they find does not seem astonishing at all.
But it is astonishing, because in the birth of Jesus God himself becomes one of us, living as completely as possible everything that a human life has to offer, from conception in the womb of his mother Mary to his birth here in Bethlehem, through childhood and adulthood spent teaching and healing and serving others and eventually even terrible pain, suffering, and finally death on a cross.
Why would God do all that? Why would the creator of heaven and earth want to live a humble and even painful human life?
What could explain it except love? In the birth of Jesus God declares that he loves humanity so much that he wants to be human. God loves humanity so much that he gave himself completely to human life, from beginning to end, from the inside out. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of saying, “I am not far away in heaven, remote and inaccessible, but rather I am with you in the very heart of your experience. I know your fears, your weakness, I know the temptations you face. I know all about the life you live because I lived it too. And I love that life and I love you.”
This is the message of Christmas. This is the beginning of the gospel message that the church teaches all year long.
So what should we do about it? Luke tells us there are three ways people reacted to these events: First, the shepherds have their fears stilled and replaced by joy; second, everyone the shepherds tell their story too is filled with wonder; and finally, Mary ponders these events in her heart. These three things I think St. Luke would like us to do now, here at the beginning of Jesus’s story.
First, I think—like the shepherds—we can hear and receive good news. The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid. Maybe we come to this Christmas Eve mass harboring fears of our own. Maybe we fear for our future, for our work situation, for our families, for those that we love. Maybe some of us fear a God that we don’t know very well or have yet to trust completely. If you are in any way not at peace, if you are distant from loved ones, unsettled about the future, or you feel guilty or tormented, then there is good news for you today. If you are in any way oppressed, by helplessness, by feeling trapped by your own choices or by circumstances, there is good news for you today. The message of Christmas is a joyful message: You don’t have to be afraid any more, for God has been born as one of us, God has taken all these human frailties upon himself, and can save you from whatever oppresses you.
Second, you will notice that St. Luke says that everyone who heard what the shepherds had to say was filled with wonder; they were amazed. So I think we can be amazed too. We hear genuinely good news so rarely that it is a bit amazing when we do. The last time I experienced wonder of this sort was almost seven years ago when my wife, Roxy, and I travelled to Taiwan to bring home the five-month-old baby boy we had adopted as our son, Tristan. The orphanage was close to a large lake with a path all around and a bridge to an island in the center. I had brought one of those baby slings with me, so we loaded Tristan up in it and took him for a walk around the lake. We were gone for hours, but he never made a sound. So, I looked down at him in his sling, and his gaze met mine. There he was. Staring up at me. Serious. Unblinking. My son. And I was filled with wonder. The Christmas story is one of good news; it is full of wonder like mine at my infant son. So hear the good news and be filled with wonder.
Third, there is one more thing I think St. Luke would like us to do, and that is what Mary, the mother of Jesus, does: She ponders. How do we move from wonder to understanding? I think we have to ponder these things in our hearts. The Greek word Luke uses here can also mean “turn over” or “discuss,” and we see here Jesus’s own mother, who is closer to him than any other human being can be, turning these amazing events over in her own mind, understanding new and marvelous dimensions of who her child is, and who he will become.
It may be that over 2,000 years later, we still do not completely understand the birth of Jesus. Maybe some of you hearing me now are sure you don’t understand it. That is all right. Because this is just the beginning of the story of who Jesus is. And here in the life of the church we begin every year again, here, at the beginning: with joy, with wonder, and together—for all who will come along with us—together we will ponder and discuss this wonder until we see clearly the face of the Christ child, until we know for ourselves who the son of Mary and the son of God really is; together may we aspire to know and love the Savior, Christ the Lord, just as he knows and loves us. Amen.