“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men.’” (Luke 2:13)
As a worship leader I get to play a lot of music throughout the year. No time is more enjoyable for me than Advent and Christmas. The songs, the vocals, the arrangements, they all bring the season alive for me.
One of my favorite Christmas Season songs for worship is Andrew Peterson’s “Labor of love” (If you’ve never heard it, find a version here). The song is a unique reinterpretation of the traditional “Silent Night.” Rather than a quiet, peaceful version of Jesus’ birth, the lyrics depict a grittier, harsher world welcoming the Son of Man.
When we look at miniature nativity scenes, do we see something like this?
A radiant Mary, loving Joseph, gentle shepherds leaning on their staffs, perhaps a few wise men looking on with knowing smiles, glorious Angels heralding the miracle, a peaceful donkey and a couple of sheep … all focused on a beaming baby Jesus. A perfectly calm picture of tranquility, sanitized and airbrushed for our consumption.
Yet I imagine the real nativity scene was quite different.
A Different Night
To begin with, what must it have been like for Joseph to take a nearly full-term Mary the 80+ hilly and winding miles on foot or riding a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to the census decree from Caesar described in Luke 2? The tiny village of Bethlehem, by that time a sleepy town of about 300 people, would have swelled in size because of the census, on that night packed and noisy. The crowds were likely disgruntled at the inconvenience of the Roman census, pushing and shoving each other on the narrow streets.
Or consider the “shepherds in the fields” in verse 8. Imagine being these men, used to watching over their flocks all night, fighting off predators and poachers. They’re in no way timid or meek. Yet nothing has prepared them for the sight of an other-worldly being appearing from the skies and announcing the news of Jesus’ birth. Scripture tells us they were “terrified.”
Fear can be a powerful motivator. It causes us to be mistrustful and hurtful to each other. It closes our minds to those with whom we disagree. It causes us to lash out at those we see as different. We like our worlds to remain unchanging and predictable.
These shepherds had their worlds completely disrupted. Yet the Angel calms them, tells them not to be afraid and is joined a “multitude of the heavenly hosts” joining in praise.
Hardly a quiet night on the hillside.
Back at the stable and the manger, things are hardly more subdued. Unable to find accommodations Joseph was forced to bargain for a corner in a barn, probably suffering disdainful looks from other, more fortunate people who had warm fires and comfortable beds or pallets.
Mary has given birth – likely without a midwife or the comforting hands of her mother – surrounded by the raucous livestock of both Bethlehem’s residents and the visitors also there to complete the census. The scene is chaotic, noisy, dirty, and crowded.
Hardly the picture of a silent night.
Many of us can relate to this more realistic picture of Jesus’ birth. Like that night, our lives are gritty and crowded rather than airbrushed and pristine. Our days and nights are noisy, messy, often filled with angry voices and disdainful looks. We’re bombarded every day with messages of angst, anxiety, uncertainty.
Hope gives way to fear. Fear leads us to dread the future, uncertain of how we’ll get from day to day. We pray for grace and help while a nagging voice whispers deep inside us “what if He doesn’t answer?” Like the people of Israel during that long pause before Christ’s birth, we question how long we must wait for deliverance.
And so, we retreat inside ourselves, guarded and protective of our hearts, unwilling to engage the world in open and welcoming ways. Rejecting the needs of others, we focus on our own needs.
Hardly the makings of perfect lives.
In the midst of the chaos surrounding her, how did Mary respond? Scripture tells us she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Mary’s answer to the pandemonium and disorder surrounding her was to praise God for His providence, thankful for the blessing He had bestowed. She prayed and opened this most vulnerable moment of her life to everyone around her, sharing freely the precious gift God and given to mankind.
Sometimes, even during Advent and Christmas, it’s easy for us to suffer from what 9th century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena called “forgetfulness of soul.” We forget to love, forget to give, forget to extend our hand to others. We sing carols, go to parties, buy tons of gifts but do not, as Mary did, “treasure things in our hearts.”
Today, this Eve of Arrival, let us remember that beyond the celebrations and decorations, the true meaning of Emmanuel, “God With Us” is as close as the next person we see. We were made in God’s image, created to emulate Him and love each other openly, abundantly, and without fear even in the midst of chaos.
God has never been silent, if we have ears to hear. He has never been invisible, if we have eyes to see. He invites us to encounter Him when we protect the weak, lift up the downtrodden, seek peace in the midst of enmity.
The angel proclaimed to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” As you celebrate this Christmas Eve, this closing of Advent, proclaim the Good News: Arrival is Nigh.