In a few weeks, some of us will visit what is called the “Shepherd’s Field” on the outskirts of modern-day Bethlehem, the field where archeologists and historians suspect the shepherds we meet in Luke actually lived, keeping watch over their flock by night. We meet them during the darkest time of the year, dark and cold. They were poor, itinerant workers at the mercy of layers of hierarchy above them. Luke signals all of this by reminding us that the shepherds, like everyone in the known world, were living under the rule of Emperor Augustus. In the world of the Emperor, the shepherds were nobodies in the middle of nowhere.
This is a difficult season. It has been a hard year. Around the world, across our nation, in our city, just outside our doors and right here in this lovely place people are suffering. We don’t get to shut all that away just because it’s Christmas. Maybe work has been particularly challenging, or you’re dealing with a health crisis or perhaps this time of year is always difficult for any number of reasons. Someone prayed on Sunday for those for whom Christmas is the loneliest day of the whole year. As we prayed the prayers of the people yesterday morning I was struck by how long the list was of people who have died and people who mourn for them. ‘Tis the season for losing loved ones. Most of us bear in our God-given compassionate hearts the weight of others’ pain. The brokenness of the world weighs on us like the empire weighed on the shepherds. The brokenness of the world is the darkness into which a great light shines.
Isaiah, with his promise of the boots of tramping warriors and garments rolled in blood, reminds us that the times he wrote about, not unlike the times when the shepherds lived, were times of conflict and unrest, times not unlike our own and every time in between. Yesterday morning we heard once again the Song of Mary, about what God does for the poor and the suffering. The promise of Isaiah is the promise of the Magnificat is the promise to the shepherds is the promise to us: the yoke across the shoulders, the rod of the oppressor, has been broken.
It doesn’t matter who the oppressor is, what matters is the vision all the prophets hold for us, of God’s intervention. The rod of the oppressor could be our complicity with the unjust systems of our day. The yoke across our shoulders might be our own feelings of inadequacy or anxiety that keep us from inhaling, with every breath, God’s abundant grace and mercy.
I recently came cross that beloved quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. It’s a lovely image. But some days, I’m not sure it’s true. Or if it is true, it’s a longer arc than most of us can bear to imagine. I think if we try to see the arc of the moral universe in any one segment of time, it looks more like a piece of primitive string art, nails on a board with string looping over one and the next, in a zig-zag pattern. We can see this in the short history of racial and economic justice in our own country. The prophets saw the zig-zag pattern of justice and hope in their time, God’s intervention and liberation always within reach, always hoped for, and always surprising.
Back to the shepherds. In the bleak midwinter in the middle of the night, they are tending their flock near where there is now a huge dividing wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I have a poster in my office, a vintage-style “Visit Palestine” print from the 1940s that has been altered to include the modern-day wall standing between Jerusalem’s towers and an open field. In the field are Mary, Joseph, and their donkey. On the Bethlehem side of the actual wall are murals, some of them quite stunning. (There’s also a whole lot of graffiti, including several instances of the stenciled slogan “Make hummus, not war.”) That wall reminds us that even the holiest of places are places of struggle, places where the oppressed lift heir voices in hope. The brokenness of the world is the darkness into which a great light shines.
Luke tells us of a great, terrifying light shining upon the shepherds, the glory of the Lord. And they go to Bethlehem, perhaps on a dare, probably quaking in their boots, maybe with a glimmer of hope.
That the messiah would be born in a barn, in a feeding trough on the backside of an inn, would have been a sign to the shepherds that God became human for them, nobodies in the middle of nowhere. God became light shining into their darkness. We know this light, too: the God-become-flesh that we celebrate tonight means that the hungry can be fed, the poor raised up, and the powerful sent away empty. And that kind of emptiness can be a grace, its own kind of light.
How do we join the shepherds in that dark field on that cold night? How do we, who live in one of the most affluent times in history in a nation built on keeping the shepherds poor, how do we hear this good news of a savior born long ago in the bleak midwinter? What do we do with this good news?
Bruce Springsteen recently said that the purpose of music is not to preach or to teach but to remind us who we are: I’d say that’s true of the Christmas story. The Christmas story reminds us that we are descendants of those shepherds in that bleak midwinter, stepping out in faith to see the savior of the world, and to rejoice, no only with our lips but in our lives.
The brokenness of the world is the darkness into which a great light shines. Christ came to liberate us for the salvation of the world. Sometimes the light is faint. Sometimes the heavenly host comes in a whisper. Our calling as followers of God-become-flesh is to both see and be those faint lights, to hear and sing songs of praise.
This night, the songs we sing, the prayers we make, the bread we share are our own reminders of who we are and where we came from. Let us, with the shepherds, glorify and praise God for all that we have seen and heard and for all that is still to come.