Each year, at this time, we read this story. But unlike the other rituals and traditions of the Christmas season like putting up trees and decorating them; making cookies or cakes; caroling; hanging up stockings; exchanging gifts—this story, as a tradition, is still full of surprises. The reason is that we think we know the story, but we really don’t. And the more you read it and ask questions and explore it—the more you will come to that conclusion.
Don’t be fooled. This story is still full of surprises.
For example, did you know that Mary and Joseph didn’t really stay overnight in a barn because a mean innkeeper said there wasn’t any room. Actually, Luke’s Gospel, written in Greek, says they stayed in a kataluma. This is the upper room of a house. It’s the guest room where your cousins from Florida stay when they come for the holidays. In Mary and Joseph’s case, the guest room was already taken. So they had to stay in the “other” room, which typically was the place where animals spent the night. Remember that animals and humans stayed in the same buildings. During the day this room was living space and so it was cleaned up to be used by the resident family.
So Jesus [Jeshua, Joshua] was born in someone’s home. We don’t know who, but someone showed them hospitality. Was it family? Friends? The story doesn’t say.
Another surprise. All those important and influential people of the time, to whom you would think that the birth of an important person would be announced or foretold, were clueless.
Instead, Jesus’ birth is announced to shepherds.
The shepherd profession was not one that people chose. Shepherds were low-income folk who worked for others. They didn’t own land or lots of property. They were not popular in the community nor invited to the important dinner parties. They were shepherds, working in the field.
And yet, they are the ones who get the good news first.
And angels tell them.
But another surprise: angels, in Luke’s case, are not winged humans with halos glowing over their heads and the sound of organ music playing when they open their mouths.
In Luke, angels are messengers. They tell the story of what’s going down.
When they appear to the shepherds, the shepherds are afraid, because they are bathed in light. They can’t see clearly. They are terrified and paralyzed.
Even though the messengers say that it’s good news and all this light is a good thing.
But it’s still terrifying. Luke uses the word mega.
What’s so terrifying?
This good news—this evangelion that the messengers say is for all people.
You see, a historical surprise is that evangelion was a phrase said about the Emperor Caesar when he won a battle. Evangelion! Good news! Hail Caesar!
But in this case, the evangelion, the good news, is not for rulers or winners of battles, or the rich or powerful.
It’s for lowly shepherds, and it’s for all people.
And after the angels leave and take the R5 train to heaven, the shepherds become the messengers.
They go to Bethlehem right away to check out what God has revealed to them.
Then they share the good news.
And then they return to their life, but with joy and a new perspective, a new wisdom.
The people who hear the shepherds’ message are stirred by their words.
That didn’t happen before…
And even Mary [called Miriam] is stirred. She needs some alone time. She needs to take it all in and process it.
I think we would be wise to do the same.
This light that freaked out the shepherds and pretty much toppled the status quo of who was important and who was not; the light that stunned Mary; the light that spread through the poor, the forgotten, the unheralded, the oppressed, and the pushed down.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, which came into the world.
Are we really ready for THAT light?
Are we ready to open our homes and lives to it, to offer a room or a space where this light can live? We’ll have to make room, I think. We’ll have to get rid of some clutter in order to offer such hospitality. We may need to clean up. And most importantly, we will need to open our doors to let the light in.
And are we ready for unexpected messengers to bring light into our lives?
We will have to be open-minded. We’ll need to stop judging people and start accepting them as they are. We’ll need to stop idolizing the rich and powerful and famous so we can stop to hear the good news from shepherds, and neighbors, and children; and from Ricardo, the landscaper; from Olivia, who is studying for her GED and taking care of her two kids; from Rick who is between construction jobs and living out of his van; from Denise, who lost her son to drug violence and volunteers at the halfway house; and from Melissa, battling an addiction still, but giving her time to encourage others that their lives matter.
Are we ready for this light?
I realize every year that the story surprises me and that I don’t really know it.
So may you be frightened, even freaked out by this light.
May it cause you to pause and look deeply within yourself.
May the light fill you with joy, but also with wisdom.
May it open your mind and ears to hear others—no matter their lot in life.
And may you recognize not just today, but every day, that this light only shines if there is a place in you where it can live.
Welcome the light.