For All the People
A teenage boy and pregnant girl. A donkey ride, long and lumbering. A buzzing small city, packed with travelers. No bed, but some family kind enough to let them bunk with their animals. A beautiful newborn boy, ten fingers and ten toes, adorable button nose. Besotted new parents, delirious, exhausted, inebriated with love. Angels proclaim, shepherds recoil, shepherds recover, shepherds go to see their savior, maybe deserting their sheep, maybe in a moment of pastoral responsibility bringing them along - a smelly, chaotic, bleating procession. The infant is worshipped by human and beast for the savior that he is. His mother hears from the shepherds the announcement of the angels; she looks again at her son, she reflects on the angels’ words, and she lets the words change her. The shepherds (and their charges) depart – more chaos, sheep are turned around and coaxed into crowded streets. Much bleating. The shepherds cannot be silenced. They are yelling the good news at the top of their voices – the Savior of our long yearning is right in that stall! Anyone with any religious education knows that can’t be true. Stupid shepherds being shepherds. But they will not stop saying it.
The holy family has no time to rest. All are whispering, as they glance nervously to their right and left. Herod has begun killing all boys under the age of two. The Magi have stopped to see Herod and asked about where to find the Messiah. They did not mean Herod, so he will do what he as always done, and kill his rival. Mary and Joseph get back on their donkey, in advance of Herod’s troops. They cross the border into Egypt and live there as refugees. The slaughter in Judah continues. Toddlers ripped from their parents’ arms and disemboweled, pulled from closets and fields in which they’d been hiding. No mercy. Unconsolable parents, devastated communities. Swords, daggers, indescribable losses.
Bushmaster, Glock, indescribable losses. Devastated communities, inconsolable parents. “In those days,” begins our Gospel passage, there was the slaughter of innocents amid the birth of hope, love, peace, salvation. In these days, there is the slaughter of innocents amid the birth of hope, love, peace, salvation. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light,” says Isaiah. They saw it. We see it. We are still walking, as were they, from darkness into light.
The Christmas story is beautiful and it is eternal; it bathes us in the mystery and wonder that we want so much more of in our lives. The Christmas story is beautiful and it is eternal – it describes our very real lives today, our challenges, our hopes, and our violence. This needn’t take away any of the mystery or the wonder but rather, in remembering life’s dark places, only make the wonder stronger.
Our hearts go out to those affected by the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Newtown, including those holy, wholly innocent, magnificent grown women who did everything possible to stop the killing of children. Some here, and countless others elsewhere, may have the parents and loved ones of the slaughtered Judean boys as the Christmas story persons with whom they identify most this year. Our hearts go out to you. I find myself identifying with those shepherds in certain ways. When Jesus was born, the profession of shepherd was populated mostly by people of the lowest social standing - people with no other options - who couldn’t get “decent” work. They were popularly written off as “liars, degenerates and thieves.” Their testimony was not admissible in court, and many towns legally barred them from entering the community borders. Their work made them dirty, and also precluded them from observing religious rules for ritual cleanness. They were generally lumped in the same spiritual class as tax collectors and prostitutes – those people who are “sinners” because of their vocation and its required or assumed behaviors. [Satterlee]
I don’t identify with the shepherds because of their low status – I don’t share that all. I identify with them because they are so very regular, not the people to whom angels should pay a visit, and certainly not an exclusive visit. The angels come to a group of guys who are just doing their job. They entrust the news of the birth of the Messiah to people whose testimony won’t be taken seriously. It never is. The angels give the news of the birth of humanity’s savior to some smelly guys who are probably not legally permitted to enter Bethlehem and tell anyone what they know. But the shepherds, like Mary, listened to the message of the angels, and they let it change them. The angels said, “To you is born this day,” and the shepherds believed them. The angels said this good news was “for all the people,” and the shepherds believed them. Salvation had been born for dirty shlubs like them whom no one else took seriously, or cared a whit for. Like Mary, they let that news change them, embolden them. They were never the same.
The first thing they did was march into Bethlehem, the dignified city of David. (I love the image of them dutifully bringing along their sheep – the Gospels doesn’t say they didn’t!) What must the members of polite society have thought! These ugly trespassers. The shepherds have the confidence to do it because the angels told them they could: the Savior had just been born “for all the people.” Even “official” sinners like them. They knew themselves now to be welcome everywhere. The birth of Jesus gave them permission to do, and to be, wholly new people, no matter what anybody else thought. Herod was fuming, red-faced, snorting out threats and murder and, probably to their peril, the shepherds just kept repeating what the angels had said: “For you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” They told Mary and Joseph, they told innkeepers, they told prostitutes and tax collectors. They told respectable households. They told Herod’s henchmen. The angels imparted their universe-altering message to people who didn’t “deserve” it, but who were most open to hearing and sharing it. Those angels chose well, in their holy wisdom.
I identify with the shepherds not because of a shared social station, but because of who I want Christmas to make me become. It’s the question of a lifetime for all of us – what permission does the birth of the Messiah – for us – unto us – give us? Who might we be? What that is unjust, like the shepherds’ social stigma – can we now challenge? What truths are we permitted to tell? What audacities might we commit? What if we were to hear – really hear – the news that the Savior had been born for us, and we let that fact change us?
What message do the angels give us to impart, like our forebears, those hardworking shepherds? What have we to say to a society, like theirs, in which violence is pervasive, and even little children are massacred? “To you is born this day... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you. It’s not just a nice biblical quote; it’s an historical fact, a present reality, and a future promise. You and I – we - are walking from darkness into light. God’s response to our violence, then and now, is “love came down at Christmastime.” Love. Innocent, supremely vulnerable. Cold in his manger. For Christians, the answer to the violence of our own times is likewise love. We respond to every blessing with love. We respond to every tragedy with love, and to all violence. We practice mercy, we perform justice, and like the good shepherds before us we do not let any social conventions shut us up. With the newborn Christ at our center, we testify with the whole of our lives to the mystery of the Word made flesh, the love of God embodied in a child, who lives and dies to save us all. God’s love poured out upon us in the birth of the Savior is the bottomless love we have to give away in every moment.
On this silent night, this holy night, time stops. It stops right now. It pauses, like the star over the place of Jesus’ birth. The universe stops, then it turns, it pivots, and we move now from darkness towards the light, the light of God’s promised restoration. The cosmos pivots on the hinge of God’s love. God’s love is our origin, our sustenance, and our destiny. Joy to the world indeed!
Love, then, is the calling of our lives, in every circumstance, no matter how heartbreaking. Those angels that were heard on high by lowly shepherds – they are still singing their songs for all the people in benighted times – “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Craig Satterlee, Commentary on Luke 2:1-14, (15-20), www.workingpreacher.org, December 24, 2012