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Christmas Day

18 December 2015

The first interpreters of the holy birth


Prophets or rustics? The Adoration of the Shepherds by Juan Ribalta (painted c.1620), shows the shepherds as the latter; but St Luke sees them differently

Prophets or rustics? The Adoration of the Shepherds by Juan Ribalta (painted c.1620), shows the shepherds as the latter; but St Luke sees them differe...

Isaiah 62.6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3.4-7; Luke 2 (1-7), 8-20


Midnight celebration

Eternal God, who made this most holy night to shine with the brightness of your one true light: bring us, who have known the revelation of that light on earth, to see the radiance of your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Other celebrations

Almighty God, you have given us your only-begotten Son to take our nature 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 your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


THE nativity story as told by Luke has had more effect on the shaping of our understanding of Christmas than anything offered by the other Gospel writers. Seasonal hymnody, popular Christmas traditions, and religious art all draw richly on this source. Matthew, admittedly, introduces the Magi, but could they have found their way into our affections, had Luke not set the scene for their visit?

Stables, caves, and figures in a multitude of sizes and materials will be answering that question in churches, houses, and public places again this year. No amount of scholarly adjustment to the setting — such as Brendan Byrne’s reinder that Luke’s choice of word describes not an inn, but a “public caravansery or khan” on the edge of Bethlehem — would be powerful enough to change the configuration around the manger (The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000).

Byrne’s point does, however, suggest why the shepherds should have been the first to arrive and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, since the fields would not have been far away. Even so, Luke gives them an unusually high profile, as the group specially singled out to be the first recipients of the good news of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2.10).

It is easy to see this and yet to make little of it, thanks to the typecasting of artists, who have portrayed the shepherds before the manger as bewildered rustics, gawping, shabbily clad, and often shyly presenting a lamb (a symbolic reference to the Lamb of God), in complete unawareness of what they are confronting.

That is not how Luke sees them. In his treatment, they have become prophets and interpreters (Luke 2.15-17), with the capacity to deliver an astounding message: “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2.18). In one sense, this introduces a glorious disorder, in which shepherds become angels in the radical sense of the word (angelos — messenger), and even the Saviour of the world must be told who he is (Luke 2.11).

In the course of telling Mary, Joseph, and the child about their vision in the fields, the shepherds themselves receive confirmation that, however improbable, it is all true. They returned full of praise and joy, because what they had “heard and seen” was exactly “as it had been told them” (Luke 2.20).

In another sense, the narrative could hardly be more carefully ordered. It has been building up to this point since the visit of the angel to Mary (Luke 1.26-38). Then, Mary was promised that God would give her son “the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1.32), a promise reaffirmed as Zechariah acclaimed the saviour who would emerge from “the house of [God’s] servant David” (Luke 1.69). Nothing could be more fitting than that the Good Shepherd who stands in the line of Israel’s shepherd king should receive his title from shepherds.

In places where the first eucharist of Christmas takes place at or near midnight, worshippers are likely to hear the collect for Christmas Night, with its celebration of the “one true light” illuminating the “holy night”. This sounds more Johannine than Lucan (John 1.9), and yet it captures what we might call the magic of what the shepherds saw.

It also carries resonances of the Easter proclamation of the light of the resurrection, and there are further hints of Easter in the collect for Christmas Day. Composed for the 1549 Prayer Book, its emphasis on “adoption and grace” reflects Paul’s teaching on what it means to live in Christ, and to have received the gift of the Spirit (Romans 8.1-2, 15, 23; Galatians 4.4-7).

The whole cluster of ideas has a strong connection to baptism, and the language of adoption occurs in early forms for blessing the font at Easter.

The writer of the letter to Titus would have seen the association between nativity and resurrection. He is not troubled by a linear chronology of the life of Jesus. His God began saving the world when he appeared in the world in human form (Titus 3.4), and that act of salvation is the gift that continues to be given, pre-eminently in baptism (Titus 3.5), not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s mercy (Titus 3.5).

The fifth-century Pope Leo the Great seized on this interplay of birth and rebirth, Christmas and Easter, in the inscription he placed near the font in the Lateran Baptistery in Rome: “By a virginal birth, Mother Church bears these children. Those whom she conceives by the breath of God she gives birth by this stream” (Robin Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity, Baker Academic, 2012).

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