The shepherds were doing their job. It was a thankless, underappreciated life. They were little more than vagabonds, outsiders, feared and despised because they spent most of their time in the wilderness, living more like animals than humans. But it was a job someone had to do, like all those people who are doing their jobs tonight while we worship and celebrate: cashiers at convenience stores, employees at fast food outlets, hotel workers, doctors, nurses, orderlies, first responders.
The shepherds were just doing their job. It was a night like any other night. They were exposed to the elements, worried about protecting the flocks in their care, tired and hungry. And suddenly an angel appeared to them to announce the good news. A heavenly host sang, and the night turned bright and their lives were changed. As Luke tells us, they decided to go to Bethlehem, to “see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
They came to Bethlehem, they saw, and their hearts were gladdened by the sight.
Tonight, this most holy night, we gather to sing the familiar carols, to hear the familiar story. We gather to have our hearts warmed, to rekindle our faith. We gather because for many of us, this service is a central part of our larger celebrations of Christmas—gift-giving and receiving, a cycle of parties and celebrations, tables groaning with food and libations being poured in excess. We do all this because we’ve done it so many times before. This year our festivities may be a little louder, a little more excessive. There may be an edge of desperation about us as we try to ignore the world around us—government shutdowns, falling stock markets, endless wars, refugees and asylum seekers at our borders.
Tonight, this most holy night, across our courtyard, sixty men are sleeping as they do every night, as they have slept every night for the last 35 years. They have a bed, dinner, and breakfast but tomorrow morning, they will leave, spending the day as they do everyday, searching for a warm place to spend the day, food for lunch, a little joy. For every man inside tonight, there are several others, families, too, who are spending the night on the streets, in their cars, or on sidewalks, because there’s no room for them in our shelters, or our homes.
Tonight, this most holy night: two blocks away from here, hundreds of other men and women are spending the night in the Dane County Jail. They may have been there a day or two, they may have been there months. For most, it won’t be their first time, but there they are, trying to rest, trying to hope, wondering what it would be like to be free.
Tonight, this most holy night: people are going to bed hungry; people are going to bed in fear—fear of violent loved ones, fear of illness, fear whether they might lost their chance at the new life they sought when they came here as immigrants.
Tonight, this most holy night: There are those who are lonely, bitter, sad.
Tonight, this most holy night, some of us have carried burdens heavier than these to this place tonight.
Tonight, this most holy night: Christmas, on Capitol Square, Christmas in Madison, Christmas in the United States, Christmas in our world.
I know we want to push all of that out of our minds and hearts right now. We want to silence the news; for a few minutes put all of that aside, our politics, our culture, the struggles in our lives. Today should be full of joy and happiness. But the story doesn’t let us leave the world behind. The story we heard, the story of Mary and Joseph of shepherds and angels, and a new born baby laying in a crib took place in a violent and oppressive world, a world full of fear and pain.
It’s a story, not just of love, happiness, and joy. It is a story of violence, oppression, and empire. Luke wants to remind us of that fact in every episode of the tale he writes. He places it squarely in the historical context that was known to him; during the reign of Octavian or Caesar Augustus, the Pax Romana. The story is set on the edge of that empire in a province that even under Rome’s unmatched power was a trouble spot and would remain a trouble spot for the next century and a half, as the Jewish populace chafed under Roman authority and sought independence. Luke reminds us, his readers, that the story takes place under the shadow and power of empire by connecting Jesus’ birth to Roman emperors and taxation.
I think of an arbitrary, violent, evil emperor who, for the purposes of enhancing revenue or mere whim, directs all of his subjects to travel to the ancestral home to be counted. I think of a couple on the road in response to that edict, not certain of where they will spend the night or what fate might be in store for them when they reach the town of their ancestors, but perhaps a town where neither of them knew a soul.
I think of shepherds spending the night with their flocks as they did every night, because of their status and poverty relegated the very margins of society, where they might be preyed upon by wild beasts, or victims of violence.
I think of all those characters, quite ordinary, unknown, of no account or notice in the larger scheme of things. And I think of that newborn baby born in the simplest of circumstances, in poverty, dirt, laid in a place where animals ate their fodder.
I think of us, here tonight. I think of the journeys that have brought us here, the questions we ask, the burdens we carry. I think of our hopes and fears, our faith and doubt, our joys and our sorrows.
We have come here, like shepherds, to see this thing that has taken place, to hear the story again, to sing the carols. Our hearts may be broken; our hearts may be full, but we have come to remember, to experience, to know God’s love.
We see God’s love here, in his coming among us as a baby. We see God’s love in all of its frailness and fragility, its vulnerability. We see God’s love in a mother’s love for her baby; in the excitement of the shepherds; in the beauty of our worship.
We see and taste God’s love in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. We see God’s love, come to us, offered to us, remaking us.
We see God’s love but that is not all. God’s love is not for us alone, it is for the world. In Christ, God shows us love—love emptying itself, love humbling itself; love giving itself for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.
We receive God’s creative and redemptive love in Jesus Christ but that love is not for ourselves alone, it is for the sake of the world. Remade, nourished by Christ’s love, we are remade in Christ’s image, remade in redemptive, self-giving love.
Like the shepherds, we came here seeking Christ. Like the shepherds, we have seen and tasted Christ’s love. Like the shepherds we go forth from this place, rejoicing, radiating Christ’s love. Let us seek Christ where he may found today—in homeless shelters, and jails, and on the streets. Let us seek Christ where he may be found today, among refugees and asylum seekers. May Christ’s love fill our hearts, remake our lives, and send us out to share that love.