On the first Christmas night, the events take place in two different locations. God enters the world as a helpless baby in one place. And God’s glory becomes visible somewhere else. Despite the way in which we arrange the figurines in our crib scenes, or picture this night in our mind’s eye, the angels aren’t actually present at the birth of Jesus. Luke reports the birth of Jesus in the simplest of terms:
He [Joseph]went [to Bethlehem] to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
It is as if nothing miraculous, or even anything remarkable should draw attention to that moment. When God comes into the world, that moment when as Charles Wesley’s poetry puts it: “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” When that happens it should pass unremarked. What God does here is best described as “low key”, the lowest possible of low keys. God is born in an out of the way town, in a backwater province, to completely ordinary parents. Above all the emphasis in the telling of Jesus birth itself is humility. When God enters the world he places himself with ordinary people, who must face the difficulties and indignities that the poor and the marginalised must always suffer. The experience of Mary and Joseph in bringing their child into the world is not unique, tragically it is hardly unusual. They have been at the mercy of the power of this world, Empire, which can tell them where to God, where they count, and will take from them whatever it wants. It is a world which makes no room for dispossessed families in need. The way in which the world makes no space for displaced human beings echoes the way in which it makes no room for God. The grace of God here as it does everywhere in the Bible chooses to be identified with the poor and the outcast. If we want to look for what God is doing, the Christmas story tells us that is the place where we need to look.
At this point we are privileged insiders in this story. Luke has already told us more than anyone except Mary and Joseph themselves know. We already know that this child is special, we know who he is and why has been born. When we look at the crib scene we know what it means. The neighbours to the stable know nothing. Perhaps they are vaguely aware of the cries of a new born child, coming from the slightly unexpected direction of a nearby stable. But they are completely unaware of anything more remarkable about this birth than that. There is nothing about this birth that marks it out as special or different. And that is part of the point. This is the birth of a real human being, like any other. When God comes to us, God becomes fully human. There is nothing in this scene that distracts from that reality.
Anyone who was aware of this birth as it happened know nothing more than that a baby has been born. Until that is the shepherds arrive, presumably with their sheep. One moment it really was silent night, the next the town was full of the bah-ing of sheep. I’m not sure that it has ever really struck before, that if the shepherd were watching their flocks on the hills, they weren’t going to leave them there unsupervised when they went into Bethlehem. Otherwise when they returned they might find themselves with one sheep and looking for the lost 99. The town would have been woken by the streets being suddenly filled with sheep and shepherds looking for a new born baby in a manger. It was what happened elsewhere, on those hills, that brought the shepherds into town. As God was entering our world in the most modest and ordinary of circumstances, as Jesus was being born, God’s glory was being displayed somewhere else:
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
As so often happens as the reality of God is reveal, those who experience it are terrified. Which says a great deal about what the world teaches us to expect from power. When God’s power is displayed to the shepherds in God’s messenger and in the glow of God’s being, their first reaction is fear. They are afraid because they have learned to mistrust power and to know that when they see it displayed it is almost certainly bad news. The messengers who convey the reality of God to people in this world almost always have to start with a reassurance, and the most often repeated commandment of the Bible: Do not be afraid. The truth is that God’s power is good news for people like the shepherds. Here, as in the stable, God as always shows that he takes the side of the poor. It is on behalf of the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed that God acts. It is toward the widow, the orphan and the refugee that God’s favour is shown. The shepherds are the first to be told what all this means.
…to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The birth which has happened more or less out of sight is a moment which changes the world. This birth is a fundamental challenge to the power of this world. The angel declares that the authority which Empire and the other powers of this world claim for themselves, rightfully belong to a child who has just been born. The peace and reign which this child will establish is not like the peace which Empire claims to have established which at best is an illusion and at worst an outright lie. And this child’s reign and the kingdom which he establishes will not crumble into dust like all the other earthly kingdoms will. This is the Good News and the shepherds hear it first.
As if to underline all of this the first angel is joined by many more:
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.
God’s single messenger is joined by a mass of what is literally the heavenly army of God. The purpose of this display of power is not that the shepherds should be transfixed by amazement or paralysed by terror at it, but that they should be moved to seek and find the child for themselves. The angel has given them what they need to know. Because we have heard it so often before perhaps we miss the dissonance in what the angel tells the shepherds to look for:
…you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
An angel told shepherds to look for a baby in a feeding trough! It’s not the sort of idea that you would need an angel to convey more something that might be gossiped from one neighbour to the next. The sign when is given is hardly unique, Jesus, without doubt was not the only baby ever born in such difficult circumstances that the best place for him to sleep his first sleep was in the hay used to feed animals. But the sign is unusual enough for the shepherds to find what the need to find. It is in this way that the two parts of the story are brought together. It is in the journey of the shepherds that what God has done, and what it means are united into a single story. The shepherds come to the stable and become the first outside witnesses to what God has done. It is only when the shepherds tell others what the angel has told them that the meaning of this birth can be understood. The town woken by the arrival of the shepherds and their sheep now know that in the birth of this baby, God has acted decisively and their and our behalf. God’s action is always hidden in the human form that it comes clothed in. It takes those who have heard what angels told them to make that action known. God acts in one place, and God’s glory is displayed in another. When those two things are brought together that Good News becomes a reality and celebration can begin. One of those places is Christmas.
A Birth in One Place, Angels in Another by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0