It is probably better to read it in December/January time if you have not read this post before.
My heart goes out to Maggi Dawn, writer of Beginnings and Endings to whom this post is an extract from. Taken from her book, she inspired me greatly and got me starting to write myself. And so becomes the beginning of this blog!
Many thanks Maggi if you ever read this, I hope greatly you do not mind me sharing this segment with others, for I know that others have read this and loved it and gone on the hunt for your writing!
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shpeherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2: 13-20
The shepherds were faced at first with just one angel, who began his announcement in a way that is customary for angels: ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s fair to assume that being met by an angel might make anyone afraid, but after being frightened by one soiltary being, wouldn’t a whole sky full of angels praising God seem far more alarming? The descriptions we have of angelic visitations are indeed pretty scary! School nativity play interpretations of the story of a baby born in the night among doe-eyed cattle and soft-skinned donkeys give us a completely benevolent image of angels as lightweight, girlie creatures who wouldn’t hurt a fly. But remember that when Zechariah saw an angel, ‘he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him’ (Luke 1:12).
And the shepherds are also described as ‘terrified at the sight of the first angel (2:9). ‘Do not be afraid’, then seems a good opening line for an angel.I was told that the phrase ‘Fear not’ appears 366 times in the Bible – one for every day of even the longest year. I haven’t counted, but the phrase does, without doubt, capture something at the very heart of the story of incarnation. God is so holy, so pure in his goodness, that the sense of his presence has always left people with rapt and awe. Moses begged God to let him see his face, but even the sight of God’s retreating back was almost too much for him, and his own face shone with such neon brilliance as a result that other people couldn’t bear to look at him afterwards (Exodus 33:17-23; 34: 29-30).
Yet, as every parent, every child and every lover knows, you need to be able to look your beloved straight in the face. Someone you speak to but never encounter physically is always remote and ‘other’. The incarnation is God’s resolution: God, who is ‘other’, becomes one of us. We cannot look into the face of God but we can look into the face of Jesus. The baby in the manger has no need to say ‘Fear not’. Despite the fact that most first-time parents go through moments of panic, babies are not terrifying or awesome in the same way that angels are. The knowledge of their complete dependence of us is frightening, but not the child itself, and the child in the manger does not inspire terror through his superior and his unfamiliar power. Instead, he inspires wonder, love and careful attention, as he simply requires that we love him. Elizabeth Goudge once wrote that ‘if a very important person frighten you, he is not great, he only thinks he is’. Truly great people rise above the need to impress others with how great they are. Thus God, in Jesus Christ, completes the picture of his love to us – the paradox being that the awe-inspiring, utterly transcendent God can also look upon us from the face of a helpless child.
The shepherds, then, hearing the announcement of the first Christmas, are frightened at first, but once they have taken in the news, the sight of the heavenly host seems to galvanise them into action. Afraid at first, they are now excited and energetic. They don’t fall down in wonder, they don’t question or take time to ponder, they don’t argue back and they don’t react with un-reacting cynicism. They simply believe the news and act on it. ‘Let us go… and see this thing that has taken place,’ they say to one another (v.15) – not to see whether it’s true, not to see whether the angels were really talking in metaphors. They just take the message at face value.
Running off to find the baby, the shepherds do not become prophets, mute fathers or heralds, or mothers of Messiahs. They just become simple, straightforward worshippers. But having becime worshippers, they also become witnesses, telling everyone in earshot what they have heard and seen. Sometimes we make the business of sharing faith far too complicated, as if we need to be world experts in the subject before we can open our mouths. We don’t need to know anything much, really. We can just say what happened. That’s what the shepherds did, and Luke tells us that ‘all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them’ (v.18).
I love the uncomplicated immediacy of the shpeherds’ response to the first Christmas. I love the way they take the news at face value, go and check it out, and then unashamedly tell everyone what they have seen, without fear for their respectibility or credibility. Perhaps it’s the case that those who have the least to lose find it easier to recieve.
One person in the story though, had a different kind of reaction. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had known for some time that they baby she was carrying was special and different, although it’s unlikely that she had any clear idea of exactly what that was going to mean. By the time the story was written down, of course, the storytellers had the hindsight to be able to tell the story as if Mary had known and understood in advance the significance of these extraordinary events. But reading between the lines, it seems that this was not quite the case. I think the story reads more as if the meaning of events became clear to Mary over time. She took Gabriel’s announcement with cautious questionning, and here, for the second time, we are told that she ‘pondered’. Luke says that Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ (v.19), which suggests that she understood gradually the significance of what was happening around her. ‘Ponder’ means to weigh up or consider. Pondering doesn’t lead to quick conclusions; it is the sort of thinking to which you keep coming back over a long period of time. Mary had already been thinking for some months about the significance of this baby; now she took in the shepherds’ account of the angelic message, and afterwards she went on considering what it all meant. In fact, if you read to the end of the story, you will find that Mary was among the women present at Jesus’ death, still trying to make sense of it all (John 19:25).
It’s easy to say that the meaning of Christmas is peace on earth and goodwill to all people, but what will that mean to us by the end of January? The Christmas message can end up sounding rather sweet and sentimental, turning Jesus into a baby who doesn’t cry and the angels into floaty fairies who sing sweet songs rather than majestic creatures who scare the life out of people. It’s easy to talk about peace on earth without even understanding how to have peace at home for a day and a half, or to say ‘God it with us’ without taking in the far-reaching implications of such an idea. So what does Christmas really mean?
I think it means a lot of things that are quite complex and difficult to unravel. It means that God, who could seem distant and unreal, became as real and immediate as a hungry, crying baby who simply cannot be ignored and completely disrupts every part of life. It means that God, whom we traditionally think of as all-powerful, becomes a powerless child who would rather relinquish his power than live in splendid isolation from those whom he loves. And ultimately, the meaning of Christmas is that God loves us so much, he cannot bear to live without us: a formula that takes a few seconds to say but suggests a depth of love that takes a lifetime to understand. Like Mary, we need to add all the pieces together, weighing and thinking about them deeply over a period of time, pondering them in our hearts.
During the Christmas festivities, many of us will be enjoying the comlany of friends and family, eating and drinking good things, gibing and recieving presents, experiencing some days of fun and laughter. We might also, like the shepherds, feel a wide-eyed excitement at the wonder of it all, and hope for the peace and goodwill that they dreamed of. But a few days later, let’s be sure we don’t just close the book on Christmas for another year. If, like Mary, we ponder these things in our hearts throughout the year and throughout our lives, we will give ourselves the chance to discover how to make the love, peace, goodwill and childlike wonder of Christmas a reality in our own lives, in our families, in our communities, and in our world.