A Provocation: Christmas Eve: December 24, 2017: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
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 shepherds?
  • Why angels?

Some Longer Reflections:

Here is a thing to notice: This scene starts with a massive show of strength.  Caesar Augustus sends out a decree.  His subordinates leap to carry out the order, and all the world is forced into motion.  Caesar can do that.  Rome can make that happen.  That is how the world works, and this week is a good week to reflect on that hard truth.

But at the end of the scene, we are shown something else.  First there is one angel with a message.  And then suddenly we discover “a multitude of the heavenly host.”  We all know this moment in the story.  We have seen a multitude of Sunday School Christmas programs, and many of them had a multitude of kids from the congregation wearing haloes and praising God.

It is worth remembering, however, that this “heavenly host” is better rendered as the “army of the sky.”  Notice, first, the army.  That is what “host” means, but the word is not often used in regular speech (except in Christmas programs), so the impact is lost.  In Greek, the phrase is πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου, and it refers to a powerful army.  

Stop and imagine what the shepherds saw: not cute little cherubs, and not sweet angels.  They saw a sky full of heavily armed warriors.  They saw an overwhelming military where moments before they had only seen stars and maybe cloud or two.

The end of the scene balances the beginning.

At the beginning we see an intentional display of Roman power.  At the end we discover that the sky is full of an army that makes Roman might look puny.

And it was there all the time.

That is why it is important to translate οὐρανος as “sky,” not “heavens.”  “Heaven” is a religious place, impossibly far off and impossible to reach until you die.  The sky is always there, right over your head.  And the sky is full of angels, warriors in the fight to turn the world right-side-up.  The storyteller is making an obvious point: Rome can make the world jump when it issues a decree, but Rome cannot fill the sky with an army.  And even when Rome can make the whole world jump and run, all it really accomplishes is that the Messiah is born in the perfect place: Bethlehem, David’s home.  Rome is not even in control of its own power.  And Caesar Augustus has no idea.

That’s what happens when the sky is full of angels. 

The collision in this scene between Roman power and the power of the army of the sky is worth thinking about.

The temptation is to pretend that the sky full of angels makes everything dandy, to imagine that all we have to do is assert this little bit of theology in the face of very real power and we will have preached the sermon that fixes the world.

Not so much.

Before the sermon begins and after its last echoes fall into the corners of the sanctuary, the real world remains unrepentantly real.  In the real world, the abuse of power works far too often, maybe even most of the time, and a pretty sermon won’t charm it into compliance.  Come to think of it, that was true for Jesus, too.  In the end, Rome killed him, which is what abusers always do.  They may kill your body, or they may kill your hope and break your spirit, but they will kill you.  It matters that we remember this.

So what is the point of this story with a sky full of angels?  If Rome retains control over life and death, what is the point?  Christians have historically tried to solve this by relying on heaven.  After we die, we go to heaven.  Simple.

The problem is that this solution leaves Roman power untouched.  It leaves the abusers in control. In fact, it needs the abusers to win before theology has any effect.  The abuser still kills you, and then you go to heaven.

Somehow, this seems like less than what the angels (or the shepherds) had in mind in this scene.  They seem to have imagined that peace would take place on earth.

That is another reason to translate οὐρανος as sky.  This scene is not about a heaven that is hopelessly far away.  The storyteller is painting a picture of a real world that is livelier than Rome imagines.  

On the cover of the program for the Christmas Vespers Service at Augustana University where I teach they reproduced “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Anton Mengs (you can see the painting at https://goo.gl/images/ybjMfi).  Go to the website and look at this fascinating picture.  There is a mother and there is a baby and there is a crowd of adoring shepherds.  As you would expect.

But just barely over their heads, closer than you might expect, the room is full of angels, crowded together, within reach.

A friend of mine tells me that Celtic spirituality teaches that the spiritual world is just about 36 inches above our heads, which makes it always near to us, but always just out of reach unless you are Michael Jordan.  But, says my friend, there are in the world “thin places,” places where the spiritual realm is so close that a breath from that realm would rustle your hair, so near that you can experience it while still remaining a creature of earth.

Mengs has painted “The Adoration of the Shepherds” as a “thin place.”  The angels are so close they could knock your hat off.

The storyteller in Luke has done the same thing with the story of the birth of Jesus.  Abusive power is real, but so is the army of the sky.  The angels are always there, barely above our heads.  We just don’t see them.

The storyteller opens our eyes.  

For a day, practice imagining the crowd of angels just above your head.  Practice imagining, with the Midrash Rabbah, that every blade of grass has its own angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow!”  (Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 10:6)  I find myself imagining that Mary thought of the world this way.  Maybe that is why she was not frightened when Gabriel appeared: she had always imagined him standing there, just out of reach, just beyond sight.  Maybe that is why Mary chose to be mother to the Messiah.

The abusers still have the power, and they regularly win.  But maybe the strength of the #MeToo movement is due, at least in part to the crowd of angels whispering to each strong woman, “Grow!  Grow!”  The abusers may have the power, but the truth-tellers have the strength, and that makes all the difference.

Just like it did for Mary.  Treasure this strength, and ponder it in your heart.

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