Merry Christmas! Our season of Advent longing and waiting has come to aclose and now we are invited into the celebration of Christmas! Our Advent began with the urging of Jesus to “stay awake and be ready” and midway through the season of longing Mother Sara invited us to recognize John the Baptist’s question,m “Are you the Messiah or are we to wait for another?” as a kind of Advent question we may find ourselves asking in this day and age. In today’s gospel reading we see shepherds in a field, staying awake through the night while others slept. These are the ones to whom a host of angels come and proclaim that the wait is over; the Messiah has been born.
The first hearers of the good news are shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem. Several things are remarkable about this. Conventional royal births would have been proclaimed to dignitaries, but this royal birth is announced to those who tend sheep.
And these shepherds are shepherds from Bethlehem. The Talmud, traditional Jewish teachings on the law, indicated that Bethlehem shepherds tended sheep that were intended for temple sacrifices. These would be lambs without blemish and therefore important sheep to keep alive – these were the sheep that would help the community atone for their sins. The announcement of the one who would eventually become the Lamb of God, comes to those who tended sacrificial lambs.
Even though they had an important role, the Talmud considered shepherds more ritually unclean than most other people. Additionally, this profession carried the stigma of a particular character flaw;shepherds were generally considered dishonest. They were the untrustworthy, unclean men tending the perfect sheep for wealthier men to buy and be made clean.
Luke’s gospel repeatedly declares that Jesus came for the humble and the poor. This theme begins with Elizabeth, an aging woman who becomes pregnant and rejoices as her years of felt shame come to an end. It continues with a visitation to Mary and her prophetic insight into the nature of the kingdom of heaven. And now we see this theme of visitation to the poor and humble in this dramatic proclamation to the shepherds of Bethlehem.
The angel says, “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 Savior,who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And then an army of angels appears calling out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” For Luke, the Messiah brings salvation by making it possible for humanity to dwell with God in peace. Those declared unclean will not be cut off. Those once deemed insignificant are named as favored.
Did the shepherds sense the sea change that was beginning? Was that part of their own excitement as the angels disappeared? They say to each other, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”They launch themselves into action, running with haste to seek out this child in a manger. When they arrive in that place they share what they had been told about the child, and after their visitation they return home “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” These supposedly disreputable, dishonest shepherds become the first evangelists. They follow the angels in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah and the promise of peace.
Tucked in the midst of all this flurry of excitement and activity we are told about Mary and her response to the shepherds’ arrival and proclamation. The gospeler seems to create a contrast in energy between this group that is abuzz with Christmas Day, excitement, and the mother of the infant savior. “But,” the gospel writer says, Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Within the dramatic center of all this proclamation, Mary is deep in contemplation.
I wonder if she found in this moment some great comfort as a woman who had become mysteriously pregnant within a small community. She had a story that explained her circumstances, but what a strange and hard to believe explanation. Joseph had been tempted to put her quietly aside rather than go through with the marriage, before he received his own visit from an angel. Until the shepherds arrived, those who understood and believed may have been limited to this newly married couple, along with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Now, others delighted and marveled in this work of wonder lying in her lap.
I also wonder if there was another kind of comfort that she found. Did this speaker of our Magnificat find her heart leap with recognition at the fulfillment of her own words when impoverished, unclean, common shepherds proved to be the recipients of the angels’ appearance? Did she note that this royal birth had been announced, not to dignitaries, but to those who sat in a field? Did she think, “Ah, there it is, his lifting up of the lowly has begun even now!”
Have you ever been on the cusp of doubting something you believed to be true about God, only to have a strange and sudden reminder of why it is that you believe? Such moments are ones to treasure and to ponder.
That Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart is a strangely intimate detail. How did Luke know this? Come to think of it, there is much in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel that reveals something of the private thoughts of both Elizabeth and Mary. It is rare that women are afforded this much dialogue and narrative in the New Testament, and they seem to me at least, to be details that might be difficult for a man of their time to imagine on their behalf.
Someone had to have listened to their stories. That makes me grateful for the people who chose to believe narratives that came from shepherds and women.
Luke tells us that when it was time to name John the Baptist, Elizabeth told the elders that his name was to be John. But the priests struggled to accept this and turned instead to a mute Zechariah, asking him to write out the real name. When Jesus emerged from the tomb, Luke reports that the women told the apostles what had happened but they were not believed. He is the only gospeler to share this detail. The historian Josephus wrote that the practice of Jewish law during that time did not permit testimony by women, on account “of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
And yet, we have a gospel written by someone who believed the accounts of supposedly unreliable shepherds and women.
Thus here we are, this Christmas Day, hearing once again the great story of the point in time when God became a child, when shepherds and women beheld him with joy and wonder, and a gospel of peace was unleashed to all who would