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.
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
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
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
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
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
The Revd Rosalind Brown is Canon Librarian of Durham