Friday, December 25, 2015

Homily for Christmas

Homily for
Dec. 25, 2015
Luke 2: 15-20
Church of the Magdalene, Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

“The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us’” (Luke 2: 15).
Adoration of the Shepherds by Robert Leinweber
We’re all familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, with details that we’ve collected mentally and woven together from both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels.  The passage from Luke this morning is the sequel to the one read last nite about Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth, and the angels’ appearance to local shepherds out in the fields with their sheep.

We may romanticize the shepherds.  Think of how shepherds look on Christmas cards and in our creches, and what you imagine when you hear “The Little Drummer Boy.”

In fact, the rabbis forbade pious Jews from working as shepherds.[1] 1st-century Palestinian shepherds were unclean, both literally and religiously.  They were dirty and smelly, like their sheep (part of the point Pope Francis was making when he said priests should have the smell of their flocks).  They lived on the edges of society wherever pasture could be found, part of the mass of people whom Francis describes as “marginalized,” surviving on the periphery of life.  They were unclean in their standing before the Torah because they weren’t in any position to observe the Law’s fine points, probably not even its basic points like the sabbath rest, ritual purifications, and the celebration of Passover or Yom Kippur.  All that was a little hard to do while tending sheep in the fields.

Yet it is to shepherds that God’s messengers 1st announce the coming of the Savior; not to King Herod or his courtiers, not to the priests or the learned scribes, not to the military officers.  Few of all those people would be receptive to this Savior’s preaching, and many would seek his life.  But the lowly, the unclean, the outcast, the dirt poor—these will be the 1st to seek and acknowledge the Savior:  “Let us go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place.”  This birth is good news, as the angel says, for all the people (2:10), which will be Jesus’ message when he undertakes his public ministry.  Pope Francis said on Monday, “Christmas is truly the feast of God’s infinite mercy.”

In fact, the shepherds recognize immediately that the newborn is one with them.  Those who are familiar with the customs and culture of Palestine over the centuries tell us that it was the poor who wrapped their infants in swaddling cloths.[2]  (I can’t tell you how that’s different from what the rich did.)  So the sign that the angel gives to the shepherds—“you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12)—indicates an identification of class:  this savior is lowly and poor.

The 2d part of the sign is that he’ll be found lying in a manger, a feed trough for livestock.  Again, those familiar with Palestinian life don’t place this manger in a stable or barn.  It would’ve been unthinkable, unconscionable, an unforgivable breach of hospitality, for Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem not to have taken his family in, equally unconscionable for anyone in the town not to have taken in a woman about to give birth.  Rather, they were lodged in that part of a peasant home where a poor family kept their few animals at nite, maybe a donkey, a cow, or a couple of sheep.  Such living arrangements have been used by peasants everywhere for ages upon ages, for both the security of the animals at nite and the added warmth that they’d provide to the family in the adjacent main room of the house.  (Where there was no room for Joseph and Mary to stay was in a guest room that some houses would have had, because some other relative was already there.  The Greek word often translated as inn, suggesting to us the Hilton or Motel 6, basically means “lodgings.”)  Finding the child in a manger tells the shepherds not that this child has been an unwelcome stranger in the city but that he’s a peasant like them, sharing scanty, borrowed space in a poor home like their own.[3]  (We might also note that Matthew says explicitly that the magi found the child in a house [2:11].)

All of which means this:  the Savior has come to us as one of us.  This child in the manger is God in human flesh; God in our lowly condition; God approachable by the poorest of us, by the least reputable of us—and by sinners.  Altho the angels’ appearance in the fields initially struck the shepherds with “great fear” or awe (2:9), now they know that God really wants to be close to them.  The sign they see confirms “what the Lord has made known to us.”

Luke’s account continues, “When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.  All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds” (2:17-18).  They didn’t tell just Mary and Joseph but also others—others in the house, others in the town, other shepherds tending other flocks in other fields.  Like the angels who had appeared to them, they became the Lord’s messengers, bearers of the Good News of the birth of the Savior.  They became evangelists, recounting what the angel had said to them, what the band of angels had sung (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” [2:14]), and what they’d seen at the manger; perhaps also some marvels that Mary and Joseph told them.

Brothers and sisters, we can’t be innocent bystanders of the Gospel.  The Lord has revealed to us his goodness, his “kindness and generous love” and “mercy,” in the words of the 2d reading (Tit 3:4-5)—and we have to make this known.  Our Lord Jesus expects all of us to let others know that he has saved us from our sins, given meaning to our lives, given us “hope of eternal life” (Tit 3:7).  We start in our families, and when opportunity presents, we let others know as well:  Jesus has come to us—yes, even to us!—and we belong to him!

And Luke adds, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (2:19).  “All these things” presumably means not only the events immediately around Jesus’ birth but also the whole story of his miraculous conception and the wondrous birth of his cousin John the Baptist.  She continued to think about these events and pray over them, thanking God for his part in her life and seeking the meaning of what had happened, the implications of what had happened for the future, wondering what God had in mind, on what journey he was taking her.  We might reasonably suppose Luke’s words mean something like that.  And we can imitate Mary in that way:  reviewing God’s action in our own lives, seeking the meaning of the events we experience at home, at work, in the news, and of the words we hear, always looking for God’s will and how we might carry it out, praying each day over all that—so that “this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” that God’s own Son has come down to us to lift us up, might truly become a part of our own lives as it did Mary’s.

      [1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008), p. 35.
      [2] Ibid.
      [3] Ibid., pp. 28-34; cf. John P. Kealy, CSSp, Luke’s Gospel Today (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1979), p. 141. See also

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