Fr. John Allison
December 25, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
“To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah of the Lord.”
Last night we began our celebration of the birth of Jesus and our imaginations were focused largely on the scene of the birth, the dim light of the stable, the dusty and musty smell of hay and animals and the unlikely juxtaposition of the son of God being born into the midst of it all, being born into the everyday busyness and messiness of human life. It wasn’t what the people of Israel were expecting when they had spoken through the centuries of a king who would come save them.
The unlikeliness of it all continues as the announcement of Jesus’ birth goes not to the high-minded and powerful, not to anyone in authority, but to a group of lowly shepherds as they tended their flocks by night. It’s not the “royal” birth announcement anyone would have expected. Shepherds, at the time, were considered a generally disreputable lot. Because of their close association with animals they were ritually unclean and couldn’t even participate in Temple worship. They lived on the margins of society economically and spiritually and, yet, it’s to this unlikely bunch that the angel appears to make what could be considered the first proclamation of the Gospel: To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the messiah of the Lord.
It’s a breathtaking announcement in any circumstance but to this group of humble shepherds it must have been stunning. Luke actually says, they were terrified, and I doubt that even the angel’s attempt at calming them did much good: “Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”
The shepherds, like Mary, and like ourselves, would need time to “ponder these things” in their hearts for a long time—for a lifetime even. Here we are two thousand years later and we’re still pondering. Consider the terms of this angelic announcement: the Savior is here; he is born for US; and it’s happening now—this day. And then he tells them the details. It’s not a vision of power and might, of great imperial bluster but of a child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. It’s a baby utterly dependent on its parents. It’s not the power of Roman legions that the angel describes but a child’s tender flesh; it’s the power of total vulnerability. For behind this birth is the power of Divine Love: a self-emptying love that takes on flesh and is born into this world; a love that will eventually be raised on a cross in a mangled body and begin a new creation: Today is born for US THIS savior.
As the announcing angel proclaims these first words of the good news, there is immediate reaction—not just on earth but in heaven: a multitude of heavenly beings burst forth in praise: Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace among those he favors. Spontaneous joy for the glory of God fills both heaven and earth and it’s these shepherds who are witness to it and we, today who are here gathered and all who celebrate Jesus on this festival of his birth, are caught up in it. Christ is born for us all and in Him heaven and earth are united in praise.
The hardships of this world, of course, do not go away. Mary and Joseph are still dislocated and we know the opposition and suffering that lies ahead for Jesus. We know the burdens and hardships of human life but it is from these testaments of our humanity to which he comes to save us. He comes to release us from the self-defeating diminishment we are ever devising and to free us from the crushing weight and distortion of sin. And finally, to release us from the bondage of death itself.
When the angels returned to heaven and left the shepherds it was without explicit instruction on what to do next. You will find this child, said the angel, but nothing beyond that and it’s here that I see in their example a call for us today. They received the Good News of Christ and they responded. “They went in haste.” They went with urgency. The Gospel is an urgent matter. God’s love for us is urgent and waiting to burst forth, to be born in us as it was in that dusty, dark stable. God’s love is always and continually waiting to be born into the world and it is incumbent on us to respond, to live lives that give glory to his name.
St. Maximus the Confessor, a monk of the Orthodox Church in the 7th Century, wrote that, “The Word of God, who is God, wills always and in all things to work the mystery of his embodiment.” The Word of God, Christ, seeks to be born in us. We receive him in scripture, in sacrament. We let him be born in us through prayer, through labor, through self-giving love—through the same vulnerability as this Child born to us this day. When he is born in us, when we become embodiments of His love, heaven and earth are united in praise. Our lives become testament to his glory.
We see that in the shepherds as they return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. May we go forth with such praise. May our lives give glory to the one who comes to us and sets us free. May we all be vessels of His peace and bearers of His love, making haste to go and see what has been born to us this day. Amen.