Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
“GOD’s poverty is his real sign” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives). The shepherds had been told that the Christ-child would be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (Luke 2.12), and it is in this poverty that they encounter their Lord. In his focusing on both the manger and the shepherds, Luke is emphasising key themes already set out in his first chapter — most explicitly in the Magnificat. As Fred Craddock puts it, the shepherds “belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Luke).
Jesus’s earthly humility echoes his heavenly nature: self-giving love is at the very heart of the Trinity. The Son does not glorify himself (John 8.54). The mystery of the incarnation is not only that the maker of heaven and earth has become one of its creatures. It is even richer: Jesus both is God and yet draws us to praise and adore his Father in heaven. He is glorified by the Father, and his Spirit is sent into our hearts that we, with him, may glorify the Father.
This theme is taken up in the Epistle. Christ enables us to join him as children of the Father. Because we, too, are children, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4.6). As Christian disciples we are made “partakers of the divine nature” — drawn into the flow of love and adoration of our Triune God. This intimacy is one we are to savour, as we do in every eucharist when we pray to God as Father in the words Jesus taught us: gathered around him, present with us in the Sacrament.
Besides speaking of Jesus’s relationship with his heavenly Father, these readings describe the intimacy of his earthly family. As Mary stands with Joseph at the crib, we are told that she is “treasuring” and “pondering” all that she sees. The idea of intimacy here is not only one of physical affection and nurture, but of attentive contemplation; for, of course, this is no ordinary object of attention or affection: it is the Son of God.
The intimacy in Jesus’s earthly family goes beyond the biological. As he will later teach, everyone who hears the will of God and obeys it is his “mother and brother” (Luke 8.21). The shepherds represent the first extension of that family into a wider Church. Thus, the post-communion prayer refers to Jesus’s sharing “the life of an earthly home” in Nazareth, before asking for grace for the Church to “live as one family, united in love and obedience”.
As Craddock observes, this scene of adoration is described with some of Luke’s favourite words: “wondering, pondering in the heart, making known the revelation, praising and glorifying God”. This passage gives us an early image of the Church: the family of disciples, gathered around Christ, offering worship to the Father.
Social status is of no help in joining this family. Indeed, it is those of low or no status who are at its heart. In this passage, and throughout his Gospel, Luke is clear that the Church is not just for or even with the poor. The worshippers who gather first at the crib, like the infant Lord inside it, are the poor.
This is a subtle but significant distinction. Neither Luke’s Gospel nor the rest of the New Testament depicts a Church with “a heart for the poor”: they, rather, portray a church with the poor at its heart.
Luke’s narrative — of a lack of room at the inn, a birth in a manger, and the worship of these humble shepherds — rightly inspires charity to those in need at Christmas-time.
For Luke, the poorest are not depicted as passive recipients of generosity. They are the active heart of the Church, in which the oppressed receive liberty, not simply a festive easing of their conditions.
So, while it is, no doubt, a good thing to offer a Christmas tip to those who clean our places of work, perhaps it would be even more in the spirit of Luke’s Gospel to ask whether they are being paid a living wage.