In the sharing the Christmas story, we’re invited to begin with what we’d avoid. We begin in darkness so we can see how bright the light is.
preparing the whole story
Christmas I | Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
read, listen, or read while you listen!
Tonight we gather at the setting sun like our Celtic ancestors did long, long ago. They would gather at dusk on the third day after the winter solstice. A length of time most Christians can relate to. We do count that number of days for Jesus rebirth.
But the Celts had a second, older reason to count those days. After the longest night of the year, after praying and willing God to bring the light back in the midst of increasing darkness, it was evening on the third day that they could begin to see that the light was winning.
And it was in that spirit that they would gather to celebrate the return of the light.
They would gather four times: dusk, night, dawn, and in the light of day. And each time, they would tell a part of the story.
And the part they would tell first is not one we’re used to hearing on Christmas Eve. It’s the most unlikely of Christmas gospels. Let me read it to you. It’s from Matthew:
Now, why would they read that?
The most obvious reason is that it tells where Jesus comes from.
But the second reason is more obvious the better we know these people listed, the story of the people of Israel, and when we notice how revolutionary this genealogy actually is.
There are some really sordid details in here that are not suitable for our youngest ears so I’m not going to go into them. But this is actually part of the author’s point. The evangelist doesn’t shy away from naming the ways the people have strayed.
The evangelist highlights in bold how the kingly line of sainted David begins with the murder of one of his people and the taking of the man’s wife.
It names women as integral to the story, not just how babies are born. How they save the blessing!
And it names the Exile in Babylon and hints at our lowest moments.
It takes all of this history of humanity straying and God sticking by us and says that this is the line from which Jesus comes.
Our ancestors read this genealogy to remind themselves the most important part of the Christian story isn’t that a baby was born or even that this particular baby was born, but that this is how God comes to us in creation.
The light comes when it’s dark. Not at the summer solstice, when the day never seems to end, but now, when it feels like day will never dawn.
At the first gathering, our ancestors did the genealogy. At the two gatherings in the dark and at dawn, our ancestors would tell the birth story from Luke and the calling to the shepherds, like we have tonight.
A story of a rejected royal family forced to sleep in the street, unable to find a bed in their own hometown.
In the midst of darkness, light comes.
And the evangelist we know as Luke then shifts our attention from the beleaguered family, whose love shines through their own darkness, to shepherds. It becomes their story as angels tell them about the light.
Now please remember that shepherds in the first century around Bethlehem weren’t ordinary laborers. They were often outcasts forced into this work as punishment.
Shepherds were in a constant state of ritual impurity. They slept with their sheep to keep warm, so when they came into town they smelled bad. They stunk. And that stinkyness continued their outcastness. That’s how the people knew to shun them. Because bad people were shepherds.
That’s how they saw it.
Now, resist the impulse to say “not all shepherds.” Because the point isn’t to speak to all shepherds. The point isn’t sheep-herding as a thing. It’s a timely image of who in society knows the darkness well and who needs the light.
Who Needs the Light?
So put your mind on anybody you know who needs light. Particularly those without the resources to sense the light is winning.
Think of the people you know who are shut in, out of money, suffering from mental illness…friends who are sick or confronting their own mortality…the anxious or the frustrated or the fearful…
Think also of those you know of as our society groups them…the homeless, incarcerated, addicted, and the families who love them…those suffering in Puerto Rico and Yemen from natural disasters and genocide…people who feel absolute darkness and see no way out…
And as you imagine these people: remember that the story we’ve heard is not just for us or about us, but is for and about them, too. These are our shepherds. The good news comes to them.
Good News that in this dark night, the light is coming.
The light of God’s love. That God is with us. God is always with us. Even in the dark, we can know God’s love.