16th Day of Advent
8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
For too many of us, our mental images of that first Christmas night consist of a thoroughly confused amalgam of Scripture, tradition, legend, myth, Christmas songs, and imagination—all thoroughly mixed with a good dose of Hollywood, Hallmark, and Charles Dickens. It has led to some pretty bizarre notions of what happened that night in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.
Set aside for the moment all the lovely Christmas card cover images of what transpired in Bethlehem on that first Christmas and start with today’s text and a blank slate. What do we have?
- Shepherds and flock of sheep at night in the fields outside of Bethlehem.
- Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus who is wrapped tightly in swaddling cloths.
- We have a manger.
What do we likely have?
- Some kind of stable. (This is implied by the presence of a manger but it is theoretically possible that Jesus was born out in the open and the manger was in some kind of corral.)
- Some mix of horses, camels, mules, and/or donkeys, belonging to members of the caravan staying at the inn, along with a guard or watchman to make sure that said livestock are not stolen.
What is not mentioned?
- An innkeeper. There likely was one, but he is not mention. Nor is there any account of Mary and Joseph being turned away, though that may be implied.
- The famous Star of Bethlehem. This only shows up later in Matthew’s account after the family has found temporary lodging in a house. (Mt 2:7-10)
- The magi. They don’t come into the story until sometime later.
- Angels singing. They are only said to praise God. Nowhere in the Bible does it expressly describe angels singing. Neither Luke nor Matthew makes any mention of singing at all.
It’s important not to romanticise the birth of Jesus and the events that closely followed. This was no doubt a difficult time for Mary and Joseph. They were both ordinary humans that were chosen for this extraordinary task: to be the parents of God incarnate. Yet, despite all of the human obstacles put in their way (gossiping townspeople, Herod’s evil plot, their perilous journey, no room in the inn) God worked everything together for the purposes of His glory. Verse 20 says that the shepherds were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” May this also be our focus this Christmas season: the glory and praise of God our King.
Questions to Ponder
- How does the text of Luke 2 compare with your mental image of that first Christmas?
- The tension between the magical and the miraculous can be problematic when we view Christmas. How does the miraculous birth, in an ordinary first century context, inspire us to encounter God in our everyday context?