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1st Sunday of Christmas

22 December 2023

Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Psalm 148 (or 148.7-end); Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21

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THIS Gospel provides a parallel with the first two chapters of Genesis. As that book began with a single story told from two different points of view, probably combining the work of two different writers, so Luke’s “good news” begins with chapter 1, but seems to begin again with chapter 2. People who are attuned to finding clues in the tiny details notice that the virginal conception is not referred to in chapter 2, and that the parallelism with John the Baptist vanishes. Surely the two new mothers would have met to compare experiences, as relations who had visited one another while they were both pregnant? Might Luke be combining two different sources?

Another point that sometimes stirs scholars into speculation is why the angels disclosed the good news to shepherds before anyone else. Why does God make them the first recipients of the angelic announcement? One suggestion is that these shepherds owned the stable with its famous manger. A less bathetic explanation argues that the shepherds are chosen to evoke Jesus’s Davidic lineage. David, after all, was a shepherd before he became a king (1 Samuel 16.11).

There may be a further explanation, which, as a whole, continues to elude us. But at least a part of it, I believe, is that shepherds represent two truths. First, in ancient society, they were of low status — perhaps even slaves. It would then complement Mary’s giving birth in a shelter for animals because the inn was full, contrasting God’s majesty with our humility.

A second possibility is that the divine favour that shepherds enjoy goes all the way back to the days of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). That was when Cain distorted nature by making the earth yield food, while Abel, who was a shepherd, worked in accordance with the flow and rhythm of nature, in a nomadic existence that the writer of Genesis (like other ancient sources) saw as more natural, and more pleasing to God, than agriculture. God rejected Cain’s offering, but accepted that of Abel, the shepherd.

Luke likes people who — like those shepherds — respond spontaneously to a divine message with trust and unselfconscious enthusiasm. Examples such as Zacchaeus, or the travellers to Emmaus, come to mind, but Mary herself is the supreme example. So, one of the most touching parts of this Gospel comes in verse 19, where “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Perhaps this, too, is a tiny pointer to Luke’s having worked together two separate accounts of Jesus’s emergence into historical time. The angel Gabriel, after all, had been specific in the information he imparted at Luke 1.28-37. So, when Mary pondered “all these things”, the reference could be to the shepherds’ report of the angelic announcement: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

But the content of that “good news” is almost exactly what Gabriel had told Mary in the previous chapter. To some readers, it may seem as if the message to the shepherds adds nothing to what we know. But I think that Luke has included all this information because it makes the important point that what Mary is pondering in her heart is the fact that the shepherds have brought her confirmation, corroboration, of what she first took on trust from Gabriel. “Two witnesses” is a fine scriptural principle (Deuteronomy 19.15).

There is still more to glean from this so-familiar passage. Perhaps I am over-interpreting what I find, but I hope not, because not only is it beautiful: it also has about it the ring of spiritual truth. We see two kinds of reaction to the “good news”. One is collective: together, the shepherds are thrilled, and together they rush to see the Holy Family, and tell them the news that they had received.

The other reaction is private and solitary, and it is useless to speculate on how Luke knows it. The confirmation, by many angelic voices, of what the archangel had spoken to her alone gave Mary material for solitary contemplation and spiritual reflection. Every relationship of love has this aspect to it, as well as its public face. For the deepest loves of our lives, there are no words, and no real need for speech.

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