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Visions from The Catacombs, Week of Christmas 2013

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Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

What I am Learning:

Quirinius was never governor or Syria. Actually he was a general who went to quell an uprising. Maybe Luke knows this. Maybe he doesn’t. Of course we don’t want to judge Luke too harshly for getting his historical facts wrong. That doesn’t mean that Luke isn’t in-spirited in his writing – or maybe the Spirit is less concerned with the letter than the deep meaning of a text.

The Shepherds were in the fields. Shepherds were lowly folk. They could not testify at trial, as they were known to be efficient liars. To be a shepherd was to be a thief – both of sheep and of grazing land. It is quite significant that the angels come to shepherds instead of important or even respectable folk.

And who comes to the shepherds? Angels of the heavenly host – God’s army. Here is a story about what the heavenly host can do:

He said that he had come with the king’s authority to seize the private funds in the treasury. 7The people indignantly protested against his words, considering it outrageous that those who had committed deposits to the sacred treasury should be deprived of them, and did all that they could to prevent it. 8But, uttering threats, Apollonius went on to the temple. 9While the priests together with women and children were imploring God in the temple to shield the holy place that was being treated so contemptuously, 10and while Apollonius was going up with his armed forces to seize the money, angels mounted on horses with lightning flashing from their weapons appeared from heaven, instilling in them great fear and trembling. 11Then Apollonius fell down half dead in the temple area that was open to all, stretched out his hands towards heaven, and with tears begged the Hebrews to pray for him and propitiate the wrath of the heavenly army. 4 Maccabees 4:6-11

The angels could have been quite useful in forcing the Romans out of the Palestine. In one fell swoop, they could have freed the oppressed peoples from the occupation.

Instead of coming to fight they come to sing. This might seem useless. Their swords might have been more useful, but their song has more power than we think.

They don’t sing any old song, but a song of praise to God.

Maybe Luke is trying to tell us that the first freedom from oppression is worshiping God – knowing and remembering publicly who God is, amidst all the little gods that vie for our attention.

Perhaps in this Christmas season we could join their song, not to be pious and all that, but to put first things first. To remember that we are more than the gifts we gave or received; to remember that we are not consumers or producers, more than cogs in a great economic machine. Perhaps we could remember that the Dow Jones is not god, fame is not meaning and winning doesn’t make us human.

In singing their song to God in front of the shepherds instead of the powerful, the angels remind us that they invite everyone to join them in song so that we might be free from all the little gods who deform us, to worship the God who envisions us whole and human and longs for our healing- the God who became one of us, and who remains fully human with us.