The Christmas Masses give us the various incarnational gospel texts, but I would suggest, that of the three, this simple narrative found in the Gospel of Luke is the most profound.
Luke places the incarnational event, the divine manifested in humanity, in the humblest of surroundings – a simple small town couple, strangers in a big city, unable to secure lodgings, and their baby born in an animal shelter and placed in a manger. This is hardly a grand entrance of the Divine, hardly the expected arrival of the Messiah, but it is very much in keeping with the preaching of the prophets, – that the Presence of God among us is marked by the reversal of the order of importance that we have established.
As with most births, an announcement went out. The first to hear this announcement, carried by angels, were the shepherds. The shepherds were not high on the social or religious list. Perhaps their only connection with Temple worship was selling their lambs for sacrifice. The story tells us they were living in the fields and keeping watch at night. The shepherds most likely were familiar with night. Their social status was night, their income was night, their education was night, and their living condition was night. They knew night, – and into the night of their lives shone the glory of God. It is no wonder they were stunned.
The angel explained that they had no need to fear because a Savior had been born, the Christ of God, whom they would recognize, wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger. Why would they fear a God so close to them? They knew mangers and they knew stables, and now they knew they would find a Savior in their very own conditions, a Savior who could identify with them, their very God manifested in a human of their status. This was nothing like the God of the Temple. This was a God of the shepherd and the lowly, the unpredictable God, turning up in the strangest places. Why should they fear? So they went in haste to see ‘this thing that had come to pass’.
When they saw it, they made known what had been told them about this child to the amazement of all who heard them. We can see them as the first of the gospel preachers, with a message that God had shown up in an unlikely manner, according to the human order. Were some amazed with doubt that this could be? Were some amazed with joy to know the divine incarnated in their lives and circumstances?
It often seems that at this time across the Christian world, there is hurry and flurry, stress and tension preparing churches with the ‘proper’ decor, and creating the ‘proper’ atmosphere to celebrate the birth of Jesus. There are bells, lights, candles, incense and choirs all joining in the celebration. Then at the midnight and the morning Mass this story from the Gospel of Luke is read. This is a story that can make our superficial preparations fade. If we could stop and ponder the depth of the story we would understand a little more where God is manifest, and in whose night the glory of God shines.
There will be new lives this Christmas, born into the darkest nights – the night of refugee camps, prisons, shacks and huts, the night of homelessness, the night of poverty, depression, despair and destitution. And through those nights the glory of God still shines and the word becomes flesh again in the many stables of our world.