Christmas day has finally dawned. There’s been so much anticipation, so much hype, that it’s hard for one day to bear the weight of all the expectations. That’s pretty obvious as we look at gifts scattered around the living room and wrapping paper on its way out. Great expectations have a lot to do with this feast, but they are great expectations that go through significant revisions along the way.
We know that the expectation of a Messiah had a long, long history. The downtrodden people of God yearned for the savior God would send them. Their hopes were chronicled in their history and the writings of the prophets.
|The Nativity of the Lord,
mass at dawn
Like ourselves, they turned to God’s word for hope and, like us, they brought their own images to their reading of the Scriptures. They read God’s word in the light of their own mindset and created their own images of the savior God would send. They would be raised up and all the world would see that they were God’s own people.
Today’s readings tell us the story of God’s greatest response to human hopes. God sent a savior who was neither king nor warrior. One of the clearest signs that a message or happening is from God is that something extraordinarily good is happening and it’s not at all how we anticipated it would be. No matter how much we learn from the Scriptures, God surprises us by working from another script.
In our four Christmas liturgies, the Gospels give us Matthew’s recount of Jesus’ genealogy, which explains where Jesus fits among the chosen people; John’s Prologue, which situates Jesus in cosmic history; and Luke’s simple narrative about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. (Mark doesn’t give us Jesus’ background at all.) With those approaches we have something for the biblical historian, the mystic and the people who love simple stories.
Matthew’s scholarly presentation offers the first of many explanations that Christ fulfills the prophecies about the Messiah. John takes us to the time before creation with his “In the beginning” and then tells the rest of the story with “and his own received him not.” He finishes with God’s ultimate offer to humankind, “To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God.” Luke gives us the best stories from which to construct our crèche sets. All he’s missing are the Magi.
Because the shepherds loom so large in Luke’s story, it’s worth looking to them for a perspective on the Nativity. Shepherds were among the least esteemed people of their day. Their profession demanded little more than someone who could stay awake most of the time, stop strays, and effectively aim a slingshot at dangerous creatures.
Tied to a career that offered no Sabbath breaks, they couldn’t observe the letter of the law and would hardly have been among those who could have read it. By reputation, they were not overly committed to honesty and would have always appeared on the scene with a liberal dose of the fragrance of their flocks. They were about as different from the religious elites as anyone could be.
We can assume that the shepherds had no sophisticated presuppositions clouding their perspective. When it came to waiting for a savior, they lacked a theological checklist by which to judge any contender. We are told that angels appeared to them, but the angels only whetted the shepherds’ curiosity. Not that a sky full of angels would have been their daily fare, but that’s not what convinced them. Following the angel’s instructions, they went to Bethlehem to see for themselves.
They went looking for “a savior,” the “Messiah and Lord.” In Bethlehem, they stooped down to gaze upon a newborn wrapped up like every other infant, with the singular distinction that this one was lying in a manger — just like the angel said he would be.
Our shepherds were the absolute opposite of cynics. Having heard that God was coming to them as a child born in the poorest circumstances imaginable, they thought that it was worth seeing for themselves. We don’t know exactly what they believed. They never could have answered the questions necessary to receive confirmation, but they shamelessly told others what they had seen and heard. Uneducated and inarticulate as they must have been, they were the first evangelists.
The Gospel of Christmas invites us to reexamine our expectations. Where do we seek God? For thousands of years, God has been in the habit of appearing among us in the most unobtrusive ways. Supernovas and skies full of music only to point us toward something much simpler, something we must be meek enough to learn about from the humble. We will have to stoop very low to perceive it.
[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S.]