Two shepherds were seated before a small fire. They alternated between making small talk and sitting in silence, like those who are long acquainted. There beyond the glowing rim of the firelight, the flock was huddled in congregation. The men too were huddled against the chill of night, wearing wool and leaning into the flames.
High above, the wheeling stars winked in and out, flickering like candles as they calculated the number of Abraham’s offspring. In the black distance beyond the flock, a night bird cried out in indignation, surprised by a wolf who had come near. He eyed the sheep hungrily. He had been watching them for two nights now. But when another figure appeared unexpectedly at the edge of the shepherd’s camp, the wolf turned and fled.
There had been no shuffle of approaching footsteps, only a sudden flare of light as if one of them had stirred the fire. The stranger stepped across the threshold, and the shepherds shrank back in alarm. One of them scrabbled for his staff and raised it in defense as the other cowered. But the stranger only laughed good-naturedly.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I come bearing good news. It is
news of a great joy for all the people.
This very day in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ
The shepherds looked at one another and then back at the figure, who by now was lit so brightly that they had to shade their eyes to see him. The light radiated from him the way heat does when it shimmers off the rocks in the desert sun. ”This will be a sign to you,” he continued. “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
By now the whole field was lit so that the tiny camp looked like a city in flames. In its glow, the shepherds realized that the angel was not alone. There was a whole troop with him, standing in ranks. “Glory to God in the highest” they shouted. They sounded like an army cheering their captain after some victory. “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” The cry made the shepherds want to cheer too.
Then as if in response to some command, the angel leaped into the air and the rest of the host followed suit. In the space of a breath, they were gone. The winking stars appeared again. There was a pop as sparks flew up from their fire. And the shepherds were left staring into the night sky.
“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about,” one of them said. The other grunted his assent. The flock had scattered because of the commotion. Their plaintive bleating could be heard in the distance. But the two men paid them no mind. They hurried off into the night, leaving their staffs behind.
When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.
Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you.” Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.
Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the village carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans. Until now there had been nothing to suggest that their life together would be anything but ordinary.
The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.
Yet no braver words have been spoken by an ordinary person since time began. This is no ecstatic utterance made by someone caught in a moment of metaphysical rapture. It is a statement of strong conviction and hard resolve. It is also a workaday response, the sort of reply a soldier or slave might give. Mary, like the angel who greets her, knows her place. Despite the words of the Cherry Tree Carol, she is not the queen of Galilee but only a servant. If she is full of grace at this moment, it is the grace to obey.
This is the first week of Advent, according to some Christian traditions. It is the season of beginnings as far as the church calendar goes. The church year starts here with its rolling cycle of readings, days, fasts and feasts. Most of us approach the church calendar the same way we do our cable service. We sample a little here and there but rarely utilize the whole package. We dabble a little in fasting during lent, mixing it with an occasional foot washing service. Then we break our fast on Easter with ham and candy. Perhaps a handful of us will tip our hat to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday and pretty much everyone makes a big fuss at Christmas. But beyond this, we don’t pay much attention to the church calendar during the rest of the year.
I am not criticizing. How could I, without condemning myself? And does not the apostle say that we mustn’t let anyone judge us because of our non-observance of religious festivals (Col.2:16)? The New Testament church does not seem to have observed advent or even Christmas. As far as Scripture is concerned, observance is not required.
I do wonder, though, what we are missing with this kind of selective attention. I suspect that by approaching these days and times the way we might a buffet, picking out one or two which appeal to us and ignoring the rest, we lose the theological framework which surround the few that we do observe. There is an intentional rhythm in the church’s calendar that is both narrative and theological. Selective observance interrupts the storyline and wrests these practices from their theological intent. The result is either a one-sided emphasis or a calendar which only dresses up pagan values in Sunday clothes and takes them to church.
Of course, some would argue that the traditional church calendar already does this. They claim that Christmas is just the Roman feast of Saturnalia repurposed for the church’s use. They might also argue that even those who do come from traditions which mark the church calendar don’t understand the theological context of its observances any better than those who pick and choose their practices or those who ignore them altogether.
There may be some validity to both criticisms. As a holiday (not a holy day), Christmas has always had a tremendous power to assimilate other non-Christian traditions. Our popular observance is more of an amalgamation of customs with roots that stretch far beyond the Christian story, and some which do indeed find their origin in paganism. According to C. S. Lewis, three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious holiday. Another is a popular holiday which has complex historical connections to the religious holiday but is primarily an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. The third is only an occasion for making money or as Lewis puts it a “commercial racket.”
As far as the second criticism goes, that those who observe the church calendar do so without consciously considering its theological meaning, I think Lewis might say that the calendar works best when we do not think about it. He makes this very point when writing about liturgy in general. “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore” Lewis explains. “And it enables us to do these things best–if you like, ‘works’ best–when, through long familiarity, we do not have to think about it.”
However, somewhere along the way, somebody has to explain the significance of what we are doing. Otherwise, our practice not only becomes rote but ends up being detached from the very meaning that set it in motion in the first place. It is like the church I once visited that always kept a red light burning above the altar during the service but could not remember why they felt it was important to do so. The meaning isn’t just off the radar for the participant, it no longer exists. Not only is the church’s observance both mechanical and empty, other less worthy meanings can be attached to the practice.
Should the church observe Advent? I think Paul’s directive in Colossians 2:16 demands that we leave it to the individual’s conscience. Yet whatever we do, we must do with understanding, if the aim is to honor Christ and benefit the church. The fact that some practice is ancient or lovely and will add spice to the holiday season or the worship service is not good enough. Our observance must connect us to the story of our redemption. It must point us to the foundational truths that we believe. It must, as Lewis observes, provide us with an opportunity to receive, repent, supplicate, or adore.
Zechariah was an old man when the angel appeared to him. His priestly career was mostly behind him as was the hope of fatherhood. In fact, Zechariah was long past hoping. He was trying to understand the reasons why. He and his wife Elizabeth had tried to have children for many years. They had prayed too. Of course, they had prayed. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron! They had been faithful to God for many years. Yet in all that time God had withheld this small blessing from them.
By now you would think that this ambition would have burned low, along with the desire that accompanies it. Yet when the day came for Zechariah to enter the holy place to pray and offer incense, it occupied his mind. After all those years of faithful service, had it really been so much to ask? Others had been granted this blessing, some many times over. Family members, friends, and some who seemed far less devoted to God than Zechariah and Elizabeth had been allowed to become parents. Time and again he and Elizabeth had been called to celebrate the birth of someone else’s child. Elizabeth wept secret tears over the pitying looks she received from the other women. Zechariah tried to comfort her in his clumsy way and urged her not to give up. Now it was too late. They both knew it. Elizabeth was barren. He was old. They were both too far gone in years to hope for children any longer.
Was the old priest brooding? Perhaps, a little. But it was short lived. He was interrupted with a start when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a figure in the shadows standing next to the altar of incense. The flickering light from the seven branches of the lampstand made the man seem to dance. Zechariah gasped involuntarily and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His first thought was that there has been some confusion. Perhaps another priest had mistakenly thought that the lot had fallen to him to perform this duty. Maybe the error been Zechariah’s.
Zechariah realized that the figure standing by the altar was gazing intently at him. The priest was about to demand an explanation when the stranger spoke. His tone was reassuring and his face bore the hint of a smile. “Don’t be afraid Zechariah, he said. “Your prayer has been heard.”
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”
Zechariah recognized these rules. They were the laws associated with a Nazarite Vow. If the stranger was speaking the truth, not only would he and Elizabeth have a son, but their son would be devoted to the Lord from birth. He would be like Samson or Samuel.
“He will bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God”the stranger went on. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
A thrill of happiness swept over Zechariah, like a wave that breaks upon the shore. It dissipated just as quickly. This was too good to be true. Perhaps someone was playing a practical joke. But it couldn’t be. No priest or Israelite would dare to trespass here. It was too dangerous. He had heard stories of this kind of thing all his life. Visitations by strangers with promises that came from God. It was the sort of thing that happened to people like Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah. But that was in the old stories. He could not imagine such a thing ever happening to him.
At last Zechariah found the courage to speak. “How can I be sure of this?” he demanded. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” There was a note of helplessness in his voice. As if Zechariah was afraid to believe what he heard. He and his Elizabeth had prayed so hard and had waited so long. He did not think they could bear to be disappointed again.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Zechariah regretted them. He saw the speaker’s expression change in the lamplight. His eyebrows rose in surprise and the timbre of his voice changed from reassurance to indignation. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” he declared. The angel had not actually raised his voice. Yet his words struck Zechariah like the blast of a trumpet. If terror had not kept him frozen in place, he would have fallen on his face and covered his ears.
“Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time!” the angel declared.
And then suddenly he was gone. The light seemed to flicker the way a candle does when it gutters. Or the way the sparks rise when incense touches the coals on the altar. There was a hint of fragrance in the air. Not the usual smell of incense but something else. A fragrance that Zechariah could not identify. It made him dizzy. The old priest stood there for several minutes breathing heavily. The ancient silence of the place gathered around him and he tried to collect his thoughts. At last, he made his way out of the Holy Place, stumbling like a blind man.
Meanwhile outside in the temple court, there was a growing sound like waves that have been troubled by the wind when a storm is rising. It was the sound of murmuring coming from those who waited for Zechariah to finish his duties. They were nervous. This delay was not a good sign. Some wondered whether Zechariah had died. Perhaps he had collapsed from old age or maybe he had been smitten by God. After all, such things had happened before. Hadn’t Aaron’s own sons had been struck down when they offered strange fire before the Lord? The waiting multitude cried out in relief when Zechariah finally came into view. But something had happened. That much was clear from the expression on his face. They began to pepper him with questions.
Zechariah raised his arms like someone pronouncing a benediction in a vain attempt to ward off the crowd that swarmed around him. By now he was fully possessed by the joy of what the angel had said. He grinned like a fool. He reeled like a drunken man. He opened his mouth to shout the good news but of course, he could not utter a word. Zechariah began to heave with silent laughter, as tears streamed down his face. He gesticulated wildly with his hands in an attempt to communicate by signs. “He has had some kind of vision,” someone said at last. And Zechariah nodded emphatically.
Zechariah finished out the course of his service and returned home to his wife Elizabeth. The two of them began to count the days until the promised child’s birth. “The Lord has done this for me,” Elizabeth said to those who expressed their amazement. “He looked on me to remove my shame.”
In this way, it came to pass that Zechariah and Elizabeth were drawn into the ancient stories they had known all their lives and so became a tale themselves. Like the answering line of some advent carol, their joys and sorrows were joined to those who had come before. Just as their promised child would set the stage for everything that would come afterward. When Elizabeth’s time was complete, she gave birth to a son. Zechariah wept. Elizabeth laughed. They named him John, just as the angel had predicted. And this was only the beginning of signs.
Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.
Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.
C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”
It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”
What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.
It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”
Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront. It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.
Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”
I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.
I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight: