Christmas – Shepherds And The Need For Interpretation

The Adoration Of The Shepherds, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, ca. 1688

The Adoration Of The Shepherds, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, ca. 1688

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 shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:17-20

So it’s Christmas.  The day for which all the craziness and preparation, the shopping and baking,  the cards and gifts, the visits and kindnesses have been about.  The beginning of twelve days in the Church’s calendar in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember his circumcision and the appearance of prophets and seers; we hear the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, teaching the teachers.  “Christmas” as a church season doesn’t end until “Twelfth Night”, with the coming of Epiphany and the celebration of the arrival of the Magi.

On Christmas Day, the shepherds are given information about “Good News” which shall be to all people.  Yet, that “Good News” is little more than a birth announcement.  What’s more, the baby, whom the angel declares will be called the Son of the Most High, a King whose Kingdom shall have no end, is to be found in a manger.  That’s the “sign” that what the angel has said is true – a baby whose family is so poor they can’t afford a proper room; a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a cow’s feeding trough.  After seeing what they’ve been told to see, St. Luke tells us that the shepherds returned, praising God for what they had seen and heard as it had been told to them.

In one of his early, post-World War II books, French Christian scholar Jacques Ellul wrote that ours was becoming a world ever more ruled by “facts”; indeed, he said that people were becoming enslaved to “the Moloch of fact”.  Facts in and of themselves, Ellul insisted, are uninteresting.  They tell us nothing.  Which is precisely why those in power love them so; to call something “a fact” seems, in our world idolizing such a horrid god, unarguable.  Even now we hear, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. No one is entitled to their own facts.”  Yet, Ellul insisted, facts are precisely what people make them to be.  Manipulated by those in power, they become more than tools.  They are weapons of control, so defined as to be impossible to deny.

Except, of course, facts are unimportant things.  Meaningless in and for themselves precisely because they are no more than events in time, whatever meaning they might or might not have only exists because human beings give them meaning.  Whether it’s weather, a law has been broken, the status and place of social realities in human lives, or the birth of a child, these events have no meaning in and for themselves.  Their only meaning comes from what we human beings give them.

The birth of a child is certainly meaningful for the parents and other relatives.  For the shepherds, part of a people waiting and waiting until they had grown old and tired in waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the “Good News for all people” certainly heralded the coming of the Messiah.  Which is precisely what the angel says.  Yet, then the Messiah tells the shepherds the Messiah is a new-born baby, lying in a manger wrapped in rags.  Even with the Heavenly Host appearing, glorifying God in song and saying, the shepherds agree they just have to go see what the heck all the fuss is about.

Sure enough, right where the angel said, there’s a baby.  It’s wrapped in swaddling cloths.  It’s lying in a manger.  It must, indeed, be the Messiah.  Doing their obeisance, they return to their fields.  Along the way, however, they tell everyone they meet about the angel’s message, about the song from heaven, and most of all about the baby and who he is.  Mary, even with all she had been through, wasn’t quite sure what the fuss was about, but rather than push the issue, she held these things quietly.  Any mother would, I suppose.  These are moments to which any Mother would return when a child does something wonderful and strange.

See, a poor family giving birth in a barn probably wasn’t exactly an unusual occurrence at that time.  The fact there was a barn might well have been something of a miracle, let alone some cloths in which to wrap the child and a manger filled with hay as a soft bed in which to lie.  Had the angel not appeared to the shepherds, they would have returned to the barn that day or the next, found the family and baby there, and chased them away as interlopers, possibly thieves.  Using a baby as an excuse would have been a good ruse, too.

The shepherd did hear the angel’s words.  They did hear the Heavenly Host singing praises to God.  The father, mother, and child were right where the angel said they would be.  This was not another poverty-stricken family, using a baby as an excuse to steal a lamb or a calf for food.  The angel was clear.  This baby, lying in this manger, wrapped in these cloths, was no less than the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High, the King whose Kingdom would have no end.   Without that information, the shepherds would have had no way of understanding what it was they were seeing, or who it was they were encountering.

Facts do not speak for themselves.  They are Moloch, idols that can be used by those who control them for whatever purposes they wish.  In this case, however, the fact of the birth of the baby Jesus was wholly in control of the God of Israel.  Telling of the birth, the promise of the freedom that lay sleeping in that stable, that was something that made those who heard the shepherds “amazed” at what those dirty old men were saying.  Amazed, yes, because who could imagine the Messiah entering the world in such a way?  Yet, there was no other way to understand and interpret it.  Not because of the shepherd.  Certainly not because of the scene itself, no matter how much syrup we have poured over the scene over the centuries.  No, it was the angel, the announcement of “Good News”, of gospel for all people, that’s what made all the difference.  That message interpreted the facts, gave an understanding to what otherwise might have been taken as a nothing, just another baby born to another poor family.

My wish for all of you and each of you this Christmas Day is that you go forth, proclaiming all that you have heard and seen this day, praising God for all God has done.  Leave people amazed so they, too, will come to the stable and really see the tiny baby, the Messiah, the King whose Kingdom will have no end.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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