The Nativity of Our Lord (St. Luke 2:1-20)
There was no room for him in the inn the night he was born into this, his world. He was born of his mother with Joseph nearby out there in the stable with the animals.
And when his birth was complete, there wasn’t much else to be done, and there probably wasn’t anybody to tell. Who’d care, anyway? Nobody paid any attention, busy with other things more worthy of their time and energy. Nobody noticed, of course, because—well, really—there was nothing to notice.
Mary and Joseph were Galilean peasants. Joseph made that trip for the census because he was too poor to hire anyone else to make it for him. Besides, who celebrates or notices or marks the birth of yet another peasant? Have you ever even once in your life heard a prayer of thanks for the children born in Ethiopia, or at a United Nations refugee camp? When William and Kate over in Great Britain have their first child, just wait. That kid’s picture will be all over the place.
But the children of peasants are always born into silence. So, no, there were no flags, no parades, no military bands, no twenty-one gun salutes, no cheery demonstrations, fireworks, no nothing. There was not even a baby-cot. And when the midwife was done, if Mary was lucky enough to have a midwife, she went home and probably thought nothing more about it.
It remained so silent that God in heaven himself decided to break that silence and let some few people know what had happened.
So he sent an angel to the people who were nearest to the birth. He sent first one angel, and then a whole crowd of angels, to the shepherds.
To the shepherds? Probably not the wisest choice God could have made.
We have beautiful songs about those shepherds abiding in their fields by night, and the angels who visited them, songs filled with sentiment and warmth. We’ve even invented a whole legendary mythology about them. Shepherds are humble and kind; real sweethearts, gentle guys tending sheep as they do; and that littlest shepherd does a neat drum, doesn’t he?
The reality is different. What is real is always different. These shepherds—in fact most shepherds back in first century Palestine—were regarded as ruffians. And if their reputation was anything like reality, they probably were. Most people thought of shepherds the way we thought of the Teamsters Union in the 1970s. First century shepherds, in a description from the time, were “unpleasant and inglorious.”*
According to rabbinic evaluation, they belonged to the outcasts of society, untrustworthy loners, unsettled, essentially homeless. They were classed as tax collectors and other low sinners, and along with pickpockets and women, they were forbidden to be witnesses or give testimony in Jewish courts. These are the hired shepherds Jesus would later speak about, the ones who would abandon the flock, when they weren’t thieving the fold snatching a lamb or two.
But the angels, we are told, went to them. Angels went to a Teamsters convention—went to shepherds who had no place in this world to call their home.
God’s angels went to them because God sent them. How about that? God found somebody poorer than peasants and sent them angels to sing Christ’s birth. The silence of his birth was broken by the glory of God shining on homeless nobodies.
Jesus came as a stranger, uncelebrated and unremarked, and he was greeted only by other strangers, strangers who could recognize in themselves a restless need only Christ could fulfill.
Isn’t each of us to some degree a stranger in this world too, alone, adrift?
No? You don’t think so?
Then tell me:
Do you feel completely at home with your relationships?
Do you feel at home when you read Time or Newsweek or watch that Eyewitness News segment about another murder, another holiday traffic death?
Do you feel at home when you look around and see that guy at the on-ramp with his sign, “Will work for food”?
Do you feel at home, even at home?
Don’t we each greet this world with wariness; a caution, a fear?
I was just thinking. This is an even lonelier world for me this year. People I’ve known since childhood have died. The home my father built in 1942, the house where I grew up is empty. Oh, the things are still there, all the things for awhile yet, but the people who lived with those things and in a way gave them life, they are gone. The home I could always go back to, forever gone.
That’s why angels went to shepherds, why they went to people like them, people who turn out in large degree to be people like us, people feeling uneasy and uncertain and a little adrift and a little lost.
Maybe that’s why we all—shepherds, you, and me—feel more at home with him than with anyone anywhere else?
The Rev. Russell E. Saltzman is a dean of the North American Lutheran Church, the mission development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Gothenburg, Nebraska, and an online columnist at the website of First Things magazine.
*[Philo cited by Jeremias, Jerusalem]