“…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” — Luke 2:1-20
Close your eyes, and picture a crèche, a nativity scene. Maybe the one from your childhood home, maybe one from a church or a town square. Look at it carefully, in your mind’s eye.
Got it? Okay, now you can open your eyes.
We have three nativities set up in our house right now, from three distant countries: Italy, Denmark, and Ghana. As you might imagine, each differs quite a bit from the others. The Italian crèche is tiny and delicate; the Danish crèche is sturdy and simple; the Ghanaian figures are roughly carved and unpainted. But whether the figures are fragile or rough-hewn, china or wood, light-skinned or dark, solemn or cheerful, we recognize the scene, because we recognize the figures in it: Mary and Joseph; the babe in the manger; shepherds and sheep; and of course, the three kings.
But here’s the thing: the story we heard tonight doesn’t mention any kings. Mary and Joseph are there, and the babe in the manger; and to be sure, there are shepherds. But the kings are nowhere to be seen. So close your eyes again, and picture again that nativity scene in your mind, with no camel, no royal robes, no precious gifts.
Got it? Okay, you can open your eyes.
Friends, that’s what the first Christmas looked like. It belonged, not to the kings, but to the shepherds.
Tonight’s story of angels and shepherds comes from the gospel of Luke. The story of the kings comes from the gospel of Matthew, where they are described not as kings but as Magi — wise men, scholars, astrologers maybe. According to Matthew’s story, the Magi saw the star that appeared at Jesus birth, and then went searching for the child. So on Christmas day, they were still pretty far away.
It was the shepherds who were close at hand.
Unlike the Magi, the shepherds were poor and uneducated. They worked and slept outdoors in all weather. Because of this, they were often ritually unclean – meaning they were considered unprepared to participate in religious ceremonies. Yet these were the first to hear the angels, the first to see the baby, the first to spread the good news. The shepherds were the first people in history to celebrate Christmas.
Somehow, along the way, we got the impression that we should celebrate this day, not as shepherds, but as kings. Like astrologers, we consult our calendars and make our plans and preparations. How much of our gold can we afford to spend on gifts this year? Would Aunt Violet rather have the frankincense, or the myrrh? Sometimes we get so preoccupied by our preparations that Christmas comes and goes and we are still getting ready. In my own household, we find ourselves still addressing Christmas cards, long after Christmas. Some years they become New Year’s cards, or Valentine’s Day cards. One year we sent them out at Easter. Think about that for a minute. We spent so much time getting ready for the birth, that we missed both birth and life and went straight to the resurrection.
Christmas Eve belongs, not to the kings, but to the shepherds.
Somewhere, tonight, a child is being born to a homeless family. Somewhere, tonight, an expectant mother is sleeping on the streets, or in a shelter, or in a borrowed room. Somewhere, tonight, there are shepherds, living on the margins, keeping watch in the night. Somewhere, tonight, God is going to surprise us, and the shepherds will be the first to know.
The Magi are on their way. They’re preparing for the journey, packing their things, checking their maps, picking out expensive gifts. And they’ll get here eventually too. But tonight, we celebrate with the shepherds.
And the good news they tell us is that Christ comes, even to the unprepared and empty-handed. And thank God he does.
Unto us a child is born. Ready or not, here he comes.
(Christmas Eve meditation, 2014, Belchertown United Church of Christ)
(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)