Christmas Eve is upon us! We have journeyed through Advent, with its anticipation of the coming Messiah. We have heard chunks of the Biblical narrative that help us make sense of the Messiah's arrival - the words of the prophets, the witness of John the Baptist, the role of Joseph in Jesus' birth. I have found that one of the challenges of such a season like Christmas in the Christian liturgical year is its familiarity. We know the story; we are well-versed in the themes of Advent and Christmas. The difficulty can be in hearing the story we know in a new way.
Here is the birth story according to Luke 2:1-20:
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Here are my initial thoughts & take-a-ways:
The birth of Christ stands in stark contrast to the worldly values. The Messiah was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, famous for instituting the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) - but this was a peace built on warfare and conquest. The Prince of Peace brings a peace that no earthly king or kingdom can achieve. It is a peace that even some of his closest followers can't seem to grasp, because it is not necessarily a peace built on a restored social or political order, but on a restored relationship with God.
The good news of the Messiah's arrival is ESPECIALLY good news for "everyday" people. Did you notice the first recipients of the good news? Shepherds. These men were relatively poor, lived outside, and were often transients or had a criminal past; they were at the bottom of the social ladder. They are the ones entrusted with the news! God gives the message to those who realize the impact and import of the good news, as the shepherds did.
The arrival of the Messiah elicits a response of praise and thanksgiving. The shepherds checked out what the angels said - they went and found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; this resulted in them "glorifying and praising God." This happens over and over again in the Christmas narrative. Mary sings a beautiful song of Praise in Luke 1 when she and Elizabeth visit during her pregnancy. Simeon offers a similar canticle of praise. After all, with what can we respond to such good news of God's incarnation into our world? Praise is most fitting.
This Sunday - the Third Sunday of Advent - continues the narrative of John the Baptist, and his role in preparing for and elucidating the role of Jesus as the Messiah. Here is the gospel text from Matthew:
"John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen-- the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is!
Go back and tell what you have heard and seen. This is the essense of Christian witnessing: giving testimony. Telling what we have heard and seen God do, in our lives and in the lives of others. Have you seen people miraciously healed, perhaps physically, emotionally, spiritually? Tell others. Have you experienced the grace of God in a tangible way? Tell others. Have you seen relationships restored, demonic activity broken, people who were enslaved to addiction set free? Tell others. Embody a life of testimony.