In the Gospel according to St. Luke, the birth of Jesus unfolds in three parts. First is the story of Mary and Joseph, caught up in Caesar Augustus' bid to get more accurate tax rolls; they must travel to Bethlehem, where "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..."
The second part of the story is the angel visitation to the shepherds in the nearby district of Bethlehem. Within the scene that unfolds before the shepherds, all of the illusory power of Rome was laid bare, and in Christ Incarnate, God shows us a new reality. From the moment the angel of the Lord appeared, the powers of the world, were shaken and hope was born. The contrast is unavoidable. The angel was surrounded by the glory of God, over/against the manufactured glory of the cult of Emperor Augustus. It was said of Augustus that he was divine, the son of god, the messiah of the world, and the author of peace, but this fame was safeguarded by a quarter of a million Roman soldiers. His divinity attested by a cult that had within its authority the power to remove all dissenters. The Pax Romana was not a dynamic unfolding of fellowship, but a peace enforced by a two edged sword. Augustus' power was not a divine gift, but was ripped away from every ruler Rome conquered. Obedience to Rome did not come out of loyalty to a democratic process, but was built on the fear born of tens of thousands of crucifixions.
Yet, the angel of the Lord was surrounded by glory, not a manufactured glory, but the glory of the creator of the universe, and while there is every reason to fear true divine authority, the angel immediately beckoned the shepherds to lay their fear aside. Then, the angel gave them genuine "good news" of a real messiah. This, in direct contradiction to the pretense of Augustus. And where would this messiah be found? In Bethlehem, the House of Bread.
Born in the House of Bread, the child would become bread for the world, exposing the lie of Roman militarism and its insatiable appetite for wealth, power and prestige. Rome would try to take everything, the true Messiah would give himself away. In what kingly surroundings would this Savior be found? In bands of ordinary cloth; no kingly robes, no crown, no scepter, and his throne a manger set within a stable. His humble surroundings a reminder to the powers and principalities that even as his humble garments cannot hide his Sonship, their costly raiment cannot hide the fact that their power is a sham.
The third part of the story is the shepherds reaction to the good news. "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
They were not coerced or oppressed, but rather, invited to participate in the central event of human history...and that is good news. They (and we) are not bystanders, but instead are given a major role in the Incarnation. We are to be the people who share the good news, and not just in words, but in actions that demonstrate to the world that the birth of Jesus Christ changes everything.
One of the interesting things about the Christmas Carols we sing during Christmas is how so many of them are written in the present tense. "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,"..."Joy to the World the Lord is Come,"...What Child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping,"..."Still, Still, Still, it is the eve of our Savior's birth," all insert the birth of Jesus into the present. This is as it should be, for the Incarnation is an ongoing event, as Jesus' life death and resurrection continues to "break oppression and set the captive free."
But as our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters remind us, "be attentive." The Messiah comes among us to challenge our preconceptions about militarism, human exploitation, environmental degradation, economic and political justice, and materialism. These are the garments which we have tended to have wrapped around us, not always by design, but enveloping us, nevertheless.
I suspect, that the shepherds also realized this. Their lives were not perfect, but still they returned "praising God for all they had heard and seen." Let us also praise God for all we have heard and seen, knowing that the Savior who challenges us to change, promises to be with us all along the way.
Merry Christmas Friends,