A Provocation: Christmas (Proper II): December 25: Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph 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.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And 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.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 When 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.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 A Question or Two:

  • Why is it shepherds?
  • “All who heard it were amaze at what the shepherds told them.”  Who, exactly, was part of this “all?”
  • How many people were gathered in this group?

 Some Longer Reflections:


(This large text for Proper II is the same as the large text for Proper I, but the intent appears to be to focus first on the birth and second on the shepherds and angels.  That works.)

The angels are difficult.

This is partly because they are angels.  While I know people who expect to see angels around every corner, I do not expect such things.  I have no objection to angels, and even manage to imagine them to be as real as other things that I do not directly experience: the various flavors of quarks, the Higgs boson, the working of my own pancreas, and, well, God.  But I do not trust the idea that one ought invest time in trying to see angels.  I think that is because I am pretty sure that anything you invest that much energy in will yield “experiences.”

But angels are difficult for other, more important, reasons.  In this scene, the angels show up in a multitude.  That’s easy enough to handle.  It is not clear how many it takes to make a “multitude,” but a hundred angels are no harder to imagine than is one angel.  That is not the difficulty.

Angels are not cute.

Popular imagination has made angels into charming creatures rather like fairies, but without the bells on their curly shoes.  But the angels of ancient Jewish imagination were not cute or charming or fairy-like.  The word for angel, ἄγγελος, means “messenger.”  These messengers traveled between the presence of God and human society, bringing God’s messages to our attention in a way we could not miss.  That is what we have seen Gabriel do earlier in Luke’s story.  So the voice of the angel is the voice of God, and the presence of the angel is the functional presence of God.  This charges the scene with the shepherds with real power.  

So part of the problem with angels is that they ARE the presence of God.  Angels show up, but it is God who appears, and speaks, and sings.

It is the “heavenly HOST” that causes the most trouble for me.

“Host” has become a “bible word” when it is not used as an illustrative word.  We may face a “host of problems,” but we do not generally refer to a large group of people as a “host.”  Except in church.

The problem is that the word “host” is a metaphor that has largely lost its referent.  The word in Greek is στρατια, and it means an “army.”  This is a military word, and in this scene it names a large group of soldiers.  It is not a squad of angels that shows up in the sky; it is not even a batallion.  It is as if the 101st Airborne has arrived in the skies near Bethlehem.  There are angels in the sky.  There are many, many of them.  

And them are armed.

That is the difficult part.

To be sure, it makes great sense.  The storyteller is making a point: the Emperor Augustus parades his legions of soldiers, making it clear that he has the power to determine the shape of human affairs, the Emperor forces the entire world to travel to ancestral homelands to be enrolled, the Emperor issues mandates at will, and then an entire Division of angels arrives to make it clear that Augustus has only limited power.  Point taken.

When God aims to turn the world right-side-up, the Emperor might as well whistle as try to oppose the effort: the messiah is backed by an entire Division of angels.

But if the angelic army has showed up to do its duty, why is the world still upside-down?

Why are starving children still waiting for messiah to bring in an age of abundance for all?  And why are women in war zones still hiding from firefights?  Shouldn’t the Prince of Peace have set things right by now?  This is a problem.  That is the real question.

Perhaps Luke’s story has the same problem with angels that I have: they may be real enough, but we do not have anything like direct experience of their impact on the world.  If so, then Luke’s story aims to create puzzlement: how can so much evident theological power have no impact on the real world?  The storyteller provides a messiah, an army of angels, and a mother who calls for the hungry to filled with good things and the rich to be sent empty away, but none of this actually happens.  Perhaps we are meant to wonder why.

But then why make this a story about the messiah?  Why not just make it a story about a teacher, a healer, a prophet, even?  But when you begin a messiah story by having Mary promise that arrogant power will be thrown down, and then back that up with armed angels, as a storyteller, you have to follow through.

I have friends, colleagues, who insist that this scene is built this way so as to refuse power.  Jesus is, in their reading, absolutely non-violent, and the angels, though armed, are noncombatants.  We have talked about this.  I find the idea of a God who subverts all our notions of success and strength highly attractive.  When Dorothee Soelle (in her book, Theology for Skeptics) writes about the Incarnation, voluntary dependence, and powerlessness, I find myself cheering.  If all that God does is oppose force with force, all Creation gets from the bargain is continuing violence.  And our addiction to violence is aided and abetted.

But even as I cheer, I worry.

I get nervous that this approach will morph into some kind of “spiritualizing” project.  It is a short step from affirming strategic non-violence to deferring all “right-side-up-ing” of the world to a time either after death or above the surface of the earth.  Again, resurrection and promised paradise I can make sense of as well as I can make sense of gluons and tau neutrinos.  It is not the lack of tangible effects that makes me worry.  A great many processes are going on at all times without being normally observable.

What I am nervous about is the sleight-of-hand that goes with deferring all effective messianic activity onto another plane of being.  That sounds too much like a dodge, and evasion.  If the real interpretive point is that the work of the messiah affects souls, not bodies, then I must ask Jesus’ question from Luke 5: “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say: ‘Get up and walk’?”  That’s the beauty of so much religious talk: it is easy to say, and hard to demonstrate that it has any impact on the real world.

If Luke’s storyteller goes to all the trouble of enlisting an army of angels just to make the point that messiah only impacts souls (whatever they are, exactly), then that seems a foolish investment of narrative resources.  If the savior that is announced only saves souls, you don’t need angels to do that.  And if the messiah who comes only affects our interior state over against God, then messiah could simply have sent a memo.  There is no need for a physical presence to make a gaseous, spiritual point.  And if the LORD (the Mercy Attribute of God, which the angels identify with Jesus, the messiah) only enacts spiritual mercy, Mary (and all the mothers of starving children) will ask how this fulfills any part of the contract implied in the Magnificat.

Interpretation that chooses only to speak to “spiritual realities” is theological oxycontin.  It is a drug that leads to an addiction that may be even more dangerous than our addiction to violence.  Addiction to violence will kill us, but addiction to a painless spiritual existence will calm us down when others are killed.  This drug will make it possible for us to walk up to the driver’s side window of yet another blood-spattered vehicle, make the sign of the cross, and bless the dead black man inside, ushering him into a heaven where we don’t have to care about the societal structures that allow us all to smile blandly when law enforcement officers kill him.

I cannot believe that God sent the messiah to make it easier to smile blandly.


Happy Christmas.

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