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Readings: Christmas day

14 December 2012


Joy breaks out: the shepherds' dance, from a mid-15th-century Dutch Book of Hours (Bodleian MS 93 folio 28, detail)

Joy breaks out: the shepherds' dance, from a mid-15th-century Dutch Book of Hours (Bodleian MS 93 folio 28, detail)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 62.6-end; Titus 3.4-7; Luke 2.[1-7] 8-20

Almighty God, you have given us your only-begotten Son to take our name upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

LUKE's birth narratives have a cast of ordinary people coping with occasional extraordinary events. God had sent messages to Mary and Joseph through an angel and a dream; a baby was conceived, and then there was silence.

They got on with doing what a peasant couple expecting a baby did until, with bad timing, the Emperor's census forced a 90-mile trip to Bethlehem. It would be tempting to wonder whether something was amiss; whether God could have fixed better arrangements for the birth. But no: silence.

At Christmas, we rush too easily from the spare account of Jesus's birth, without divine glamour, to the angels' appearing. Mary and Joseph did not see those angels; they were left holding a new-born baby in a stable. God had been disturbingly active in their lives a while ago, but, in the mess and pain of birth away from home, God apparently was keeping quiet.

God did send an angel eventually - but not to Mary and Joseph. Instead, on a hillside, God disturbed the night watch of a group of shepherds who were not particularly looking out for God. Their responsibilities in the fields, 24 hours a day, prevented their participation in Jewish worship, and made them religious outcasts.

It was to this unlikely assembly, minding their own business with their sheep, that God's angel appeared one dark night. Luke reports their understandable fear, their decision to abandon their sheep (risking their livelihood), and their hasty trip to Bethlehem, where they found the baby, and told his parents their bizarre story.

This band of breathless shepherds became God's messengers to Mary and Joseph, for whom their arrival was unexpected, but probably a comfort, since it assured them that God had not abandoned them after all. They, in turn, could reassure the shepherds - who would not expect them to believe weird stories of a sky full of angels - that they were not hallucinating, but were the first to hear that God really had sent a saviour.

That was the only miraculous part of the actual birth of Jesus: otherwise, Mary and Joseph, plus any extended family with them, were on their own, dealing with a natural birth away from their own home. Perhaps through the shepherds they discovered, as we can today, that God's silence is not God's absence. Luke records that Mary treasured these words, and pondered them in her heart. Years later, she might have drawn strength from them, as she faced the seeming silence of God at Calvary.

What was the effect on the shepherds? Today's readings tell of the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Saviour's appearing; of the Lord's proclaiming to the end of the earth that salvation comes; that God's holy people are sought out, not forsaken. This is what the shepherds experienced that stunning night, and they returned, glorifying and praising God.

One medieval artist envisaged their dancing. I have a picture on an old Christmas card from a Book of Hours (below), showing a group of stolid medieval peasant shepherds, concentrating intensely as they solemnly attempt a circle dance. It is a dancing disaster waiting to happen: some appear to have two left feet, and one is going in the opposite direction while still holding his neighbours' hands.

They have dropped their crooks on the ground because something has caused them to venture into this new territory of dancing. The clue lies with one who is outside the circle, on the right, pointing upwards - no doubt it was at the angels. Even hardened shepherds can dance when joy breaks out, when a saviour is born.

We never know how God's messengers may come to us, or what unlikely things God's messengers - for that is what angels are - may cause us to do. We know that Mary treasured the shepherds' words in her heart, and maybe, just maybe, the shepherds really did learn to dance. The Christmas collect prays for us to be daily renewed by the Holy Spirit. Expect an unexpected answer as joy breaks out: the goodness and lovingkindness of God has appeared.

The Revd Rosalind Brown is Canon Librarian of Durham Cathedral.


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