I didn’t grow up as a Christian, so my Christmases were not religious. I do distinctly remember singing Silent Night, and the peaceful scene it conjured. And in childhood I loved The Little Drummer Boy and was sure he was an integral part of the nativity scene. This was all I knew of Christmas until my 20s. The story of Christ’s birth is more complex and more meaningful that I imagined in my childhood.
The Secular Christmas I celebrated, and that the world continues to celebrate, has its own doctrine. It tells us that we will never be lonely. That all the seats at our table will be full. Secular Christmas tells us families will be together, and young children and adult children will get along. The world’s celebration allows for no grief, no loss, no discord, no disappointment.
The Biblical story is a bit more complex. Today in Luke Chapter 2, we read, “an angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
What does “The Glory of the Lord” mean? It is the blazing light that exudes from God’s presence and power. In the Book of Exodus, when the Lord calls Moses up the mountain to receive the ten commandments, the text describes the glory of the Lord appearing to Moses like a DEVOURING FIRE on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
Imagine, like the shepherds, you’re going about your business sometime after dark, coming home from a late shift or walking the dog, or you’re relaxing outside on a summer night, and suddenly an angel of the Lord, is before you, a devouring fire BLAZING all around you.
How does you react? Scripture tells us how the shepherds reacted. Verse 9: “They were terrified.”
But the angel reassures them,
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”
Then the angel instructs the shepherds how to find THIS CHILD, their savior. It is a startling proclamation that disrupts a peaceful night of tending sheep. Stunned and afraid, these poor men somehow manage to overcome their shock, drop everything and go in search of the child.
The shepherds find the baby in the manger––it’s that scene portrayed on so many Christmas cards, an iridescent star beaming a ray of silver light down over a humble stable, and from within the stable a warm glow casts everyone in a soft-focus dreamscape.
I have my doubts about the warm glow. I grew up among stables, and I knew since before I could speak that fire and hay don’t mix. It’s not likely fire or candles were nearby. So I imagine that as the shepherds approached, the holy family was not really bathed in warm light. It was likely dark, and likely cold.
With a twinge of anxiety, Mary and Joseph would have heard the slow approach of strangers in the darkness, footsteps in the gravel. They might have smelled the shepherds before they saw them; smells of earth and sweat, and of the sheep they tended.
The shepherds were likely weather beaten, scraggly, with rough hands and soiled clothes. Has anyone here seen the movie The Nativity Story? It portrays this scene: a shepherd approaches the manger tentatively, aware of his lowly station, painfully aware he is intruding.
He wants to reach out it to the baby Jesus, but in his humility, he hesitates. Perceiving this, Mary lifts the baby Jesus to him, and says, “He came for all mankind.” He came for ALL mankind. For all HUMANKIND.
In scripture, the placid innocence of nativity scene is soon shattered. As Herod launches has brutal reign of terror, an angel forewarns Joseph in a dream. A distraught Mary and Joseph bundle up Jesus in a rush and flee to Egypt. Let’s unpack that.
Fearing for the life of their child, they find themselves as refugees, vulnerable and alone in a foreign land, with foreign customs, estranged from their homeland and their families until the danger passes. Imagine their isolation. Their loneliness. Their homesickness.
The Biblical Christmas story of Jesus’ birth unfolds in tension–– tension between joy and fear, safety and threat, life and death.
As Christians, we sit in the pews today, carrying within us these tensions: we carry those things for which we are grateful, along with those things that cause us anxiety and fear and even dread.
In our broader world, some may find Christmas joy difficult to access: for the homeless, for those whose budget doesn’t quite cover both rent AND food, let alone presents, for people living in regions of military conflict.
The Christmas story answers the question of where God is in our suffering. The entire narrative of Jesus’ life, from his conception to his crucifixion, is the story of GOD WITH US.
God has surrendered his omnipotence and omniscience to descend into the womb of Mary, to be born into human life in all its precariousness, to be bound up in swaddling clothes, literally unable to move in a feed trough, set in a violent scene where the evil of the world is trying to eradicate the light of the world. God becomes acquainted with utter helplessness.
God CHOSE this. He CHOSE to be subject to all that we are subject to, to be with us in the fullness of our humanity.
The shepherds in the fields, blinded by the blazing glory of the Lord, could not have fully understood what the angel was saying to them. They could not have understood that some thirty years later, this same Jesus would pass through the darkest of human endeavors, enduring a painful, ignoble death and then, would rise from the dead, conquering the power of death and sin over human life.
These are glad tidings of great joy: the Incarnation of God in Christ, his birth, life, death and resurrection, has won for us eternal, present access to supernatural joy.
I Peter 8 reads, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
The eternal light of the world has broken into time as a little baby. His is a light which no darkness can overcome. Here is the LOVE of God, who sanctified our humanity, even its most hidden and difficult parts, every fear, discomfort, INSECURITY and uncertainty.
Our God is with us.
Come, let us adore him.