I met John when I was a graduate student. He was an adjunct professor in the religious studies department. Perhaps more significantly, he was a combat veteran from the first Gulf War.
On a mission there, he and his unit were exposed to sarin nerve gas. When he returned to civilian life, John had a hard time adjusting. He struggled with his health, which declined steadily in the years following his tour of duty. By the time I met him, he was already reliant on a cane for walking, even though he was only in his forties.
John was concerned at the time about the vets coming home from the two theaters of war that we’d opened up: Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). We’d both been hearing about the high incidence of PTSD, major depression, and even traumatic brain injury (TBI) among the returning vets. Many of them were having a very hard time coping.
John wanted to organize a group for them, and invited me to come join him in this venture.
Of course, as you may have guessed, the men that John located weren’t very willing to participate. We anticipated the resistance, but John was convinced that once the men learned about his combat experience, they’d be willing to open up to him.
Suffering isolates. Indeed, what is even more excruciating than the pain of the suffering itself is the sense of separation it brings. “No one understands what I am going through.” “I stand all alone in this.”
We are not insensitive to this experience, when we repeat the words of the angel today: “to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). On the contrary, the fact that we do repeat them shows that we take the experience very seriously. For because of the event that the angel proclaims, we can say with confidence that “God understands.” “I am never alone. God is with me.” “The people who have walked in darkness indeed have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2).
These remain mere religious platitudes until we grasp the truth of the event that we are celebrating today. For in this One born in the City of David, God has come to us. Immanuel, God with us.
God comes to us not in an overwhelming display of glory, majesty and power, which would only terrify and annihilate, as we can see in the response of the shepherds to the presence of the angel of the Lord who appears to them. Rather, God comes to us in the gentleness of an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
In him, God has entered our history. He has shared our journey. He has come to free us from our darkness and bring us into his light.
Poets and preachers ring the changes on the paradox of the event: God most high made himself low. He whom the heavens cannot contain made himself small. He who is rich made himself poor. He who is omnipotent made himself frail.
This reveals how far God’s love for us will go. About her sick child, we have heard a mother say in all sincerity: “if I could trade places with him, I would.” Perhaps this is the closest analogy we have to the event we are celebrating today.
In this Savior, who is Christ the Lord, is embodied the grace, mercy and tender love of the Father. “Jesus is love incarnate” (Pope Francis). He is not only a teacher of wisdom. He is not only a good man who serves as a model for humanity. He is the One who was with the Father in the beginning. He is the One through whom all things were made. In the “child wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” this One became flesh and made his dwelling with us.
This is the content of the message of the angel. But if the angel is the first to proclaim this message, the shepherds are the first to receive it. They are the first because they are the last, the outcast.
To be sure, the vocation of shepherd is ennobled by the great heroes of the faith: Abraham, Moses and David come to mind here. Indeed, since David the image of shepherd becomes the preferred one for the king of Israel, realized fully in the Messiah, the great shepherd of the sheep.
But at this time shepherds had low status. The religious leaders designated only the desert regions outside of the towns for pasturing sheep and goats. And they forbid the purchase of wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd on the assumption that it was stolen property. The religious class hardly affirmed the shepherd as religious. If anything, they held them in contempt, dismissing them as “sinners.”
Why, then, should God choose the shepherds as the first to receive the good news of great joy, which is for all the people? Why entrust to them this treasure, this astonishing news of the glorious riches of God’s grace?
It is perhaps another one of those paradoxes that we mentioned earlier. God does not evidently give preferential treatment to the powerful and the privileged, whom the world esteems. He chooses the simple and the common, thereby dignifying the ordinary. In doing so, he shows us that the good news is for all peoples. No one is denied access to God. His love embraces all people, even and especially those whom the world regards of no account.
The shepherds are the very kind of people for whom God sent his Son into the world. The shepherds are real people, in no way resembling the sanitized replicas we display in our manger scenes during Christmas time. We should be glad about this; otherwise there’d be no hope for most of us.
After receiving this news, the shepherds cannot stand still. They have to go and see for themselves.
We have heard the expressions: “faith is blind;” “faith is a leap in the dark.” But is this really true? Is the faith that accompanies the reception of the good news blind? On the contrary, it is a faith that seeks and expects confirmation. God is not displeased with us when we ask him in prayer to confirm for us the truth of his Word. This is what we learned on the Third Sunday of Advent, when we considered the question of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?” “There are no stupid questions,” as our teachers used to tell us in the classroom. If that applies in our relationship to our teachers, how much more in our relationship to God?
Though the shepherds do not ask, they are given a sign, which will confirm for them what the angel has told them.
When our hearts are open to the good news, we are prepared to go in search of Jesus too. “You will search for me and find me if you search with all your heart.” This is the gracious promise that God extended to the exiles in Babylon through the prophet Jeremiah (29:13). That same promise is extended to the shepherds today. “They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” It is a promise extended to us today.
And that is what we want to see on Christmas morning. We have carved out time in our morning to worship, to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us through his Word and his Spirit, who opens our eyes to see it and our hearts to receive it.
When the shepherds find Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger, they stay long enough to behold him, to contemplate him in wonder and amazement.
We too should behold him. For this is nothing other than to worship him. We’ve come to this time of worship to contemplate him in wonder and amazement, reflecting on all that we’ve been told in God’s word about him. “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord,” to cite the title of the classic hymn. For Christmas is about worship.
This is exemplified above all in the angels. The one angel is soon joined by a great chorus of angels, who praise God, saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Journalist Roger Gilbert reported on his experience at a public gathering for a partial solar eclipse. At the moment that the moon became superimposed on the sun, the crowd spontaneously burst out into applause.
Author Chelsea Harmon compares this with what the angels do on that first Christmas day: “their praise for God was like the crowd applauding the magnificence of the solar eclipse: elation to be a witness to something so beautiful as God’s [salvation].”
But if Christmas is about worship, it is also about going into the world to share the good news. Indeed, in this regard we can say that worship is the summit and source of the Christian life. We come to worship and then go out into the world to live out in word and deed what we have seen and heard here, on Christmas day.
Is this not exactly what the shepherds do? After they worship the Christ child, they make known what has been told them about this child. And all who hear it are amazed at what the shepherds told them…
We have already said that Christmas is a time for evangelizing. Let us too be sure to share the good news of great joy which is for all people. God loves us. He loves us so much that he gave us his Son to be our brother, who understands, who stands with us in our darkest hours.
John, the religious studies professor we mentioned at the beginning, wanted only to share with those returning vets what he came to realize for himself. He wanted them to know that with the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, they have a brother in arms, with whom they are never alone.
As the angel addressed to the shepherds then the words: “Do not be afraid”, so God addresses those same words to us today. Do not be afraid. Jesus Christ is our brother. God is our Father. God is for us, not against us. In the gift of the infant lying in the manger, God shows that his favor rests on us. Peace on earth and good will towards men, as the old English version of the Bible puts it.
Peace be with all of you on this Christmas Day. Amen.