‘While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2:6-7) These few lines from Luke’s Gospel are all we are given of the birth of him of whom Isaiah spoke: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.’ (Isaiah 9:6-7) A great King has come into the world, but more space is given to the announcement of his birth to lowly Shepherds out in the fields than to the event itself, an event considered so momentous that we reckon time by the date of his birth, this year being the Two Thousand and Twentieth year since his birth. So, perhaps that is where we should spend some little time as we ponder on ‘all these things.’ (Luke 2:20)
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) Mary, the child’s mother, was also given a sign: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” (Luke 1:36) But here in this night’s story is nothing special — no infertile woman past bearing age giving birth, only a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. A ‘manger’ could be the feeding trough for cattle, or it could be just the enclosure where cattle were kept, an open place. So, the wrapping of the child would have been a usual precaution a mother in those times would have taken to protect her child from cold. To find a child in a cowshed might be a little odd, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Yet this story of the Annunciation to the Shepherds finishes with: ‘And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was as they had been told.’ (Luke 2:20) The value of a sign lies not in its unusualness, but in that it was as it was said. If we put aside what is unusual in the sign given to Mary, its value, too, lies in its being as was said. Thus, the other things that were said can also be relied upon: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33) A great King, the Son of God, is to be born to us! To this is added this night: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11) The child born this day is not just to be a great King, but he is also to be a ‘Saviour,’ a title that evokes a memory of Moses who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land.
‘Saviour,’ however, was also a title given to rulers whose reign brought peace and prosperity. Caesar Augustus, who we were reminded of at the beginning of this Gospel (Luke 2:1), was acclaimed as ‘Saviour of the World’ and ‘Son of God,’ for his reign had brought about a ‘peace’ to the ‘whole world’ after a long period of violent conflict. His was the kind of peace that is currently being imposed on the people of Syria, a peace that sadly cannot last for it needs the point of a gun to enforce it. In mentioning Caesar at the beginning of this Gospel passage, St Luke was intentionally putting these two Kings, Caesar and the Christ, side by side. Thus, I am reminded of Jesus’ later words to his disciples: “The kings of the gentile peoples dominate them, and those having power over them are called benefactors. But it not to be so with you.” (Luke 22:25-26) Then, when in the custody of Caesar, Jesus was asked if he were a king. He replied, “My kingdom is not of this kind. If it was, my followers would fight so that I wouldn't be handed over. But I'm not that kind of king, not the world's kind of king.” (John 18:36) Thus, the ‘peace’ that Christ the King brings is not this world’s kind of peace, that is, merely the absence of violence; it is something more, something better, something worth singing about: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who enjoy God’s favours!” (Luke 2:14) For it is a deep peace of non-violence, of reconciliation; it is a peace that even the powerless and lowly can enjoy. Well might the poor shepherds go home rejoicing. For they found everything to be ‘exactly as they had been told.’ They saw the sign and they believed. (John 2:11) This is the point of signs.
At the end of his Gospel, St John says to us, “There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.” (John 20:30-31) This night’s sign was also written down for us — as the angel put it to the shepherds: “I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.” (Luke 2:10) Like the shepherds, we are called to go home ‘glorifying and praising God for all we have heard. For it was exactly as they had been told.’ (Luke 2:26) This night calls us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and thus, that the peace he brings will prevail. It calls us not just to live in that peace, but to live that peace, a peace that only God can give. For this Christ, our Saviour, says to us: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not to be like that with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant.” (Luke 22:25-26) “That is what the Son of Man did: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many.” (Matthew 20:28) As he put it on his last night with his disciples: “I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do.” (John 13:15) The peace we are called to live is no more and no less than that good zeal St Benedict asks us to practice with fervent love: ‘They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.’ (Rule of St Benedict 72:4-7 C.f.: John 13:34)
As we go home this night, let us go with the angelic choir ringing in our ears that we may join with them in praising and glorifying God: “Glory to God in the highest realms of heaven! For there is peace and a good hope given to all.” (Luke 2:14)
I wish you all a happy and holy Christmas.