By Ray Tetz
The very first story I ever really loved did not start out with “Once upon a time.” As I remember it, the story started with “There were shepherds abiding in the fields.”
Now, if you are concerned that those words actually occur more than halfway through Luke’s narrative of the nativity, when most of the story has already taken place, fear not! I love every bit of the story of Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. But I’m glad Luke included the shepherds in the story.
When I first heard the story as a wee lamb myself, I knew the group I might like to be a part of: the bunch of shepherds camping on the hills, telling stories beside a nice warm fire, surrounded by friendly sheep who were listening in on every word—and known to the angelic host as servants of God, good and true!
By the time I learned that some might consider them to be a questionable choice to be witnesses to the birth of Jesus because they were rough and loud and probably smelled terrible and rarely went to church, I had already decided that theirs was just about the coolest story ever. And the part about the angel choir appearing in the sky like the fireworks on the fourth of July made their adventures even better. Since I grew up in a singing family, it made total sense to me that there would be a special soundtrack with soaring harmonies and thundering instruments to urge them on their way to Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus.
The blessed Baby Jesus, of course, is the main event—there is never any doubt about that. Even a kid could follow Luke’s storytelling logic that grabbed hold of you from your imagined place with the sheep and led you across the hills into the little town of Bethlehem. He brought you right up to your own place in front of the manger bed of the Christ Child, where you knew you belonged.
This was always the story of the glad birth of the Light of the World; the angels filling the night sky with light or the embers of a shepherd’s fire are details. The point of the story was never the shepherds, or the wise men, or any of the various elements of the story—save this one: Emmanuel! God with us!
Through whose eyes do you join this Christmas story?
Do you begin reading it from “the begats”—and get a sense of the broad span of God’s incredible plan? Or does the Christmas story begin for you with that tender meeting between the angel and Mary, when she learns of the great mystery in which she is chosen to have a major part?
Perhaps it is the story of difficult faithfulness lived by Joseph that draws you in—or the story of the once skeptical and then muted and persuaded priest, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth’s surprising, joyous, geriatric pregnancy. Perhaps the story becomes impossible to set aside with Elizabeth and Mary—Elizabeth greets her cousin Mary and, after a reassuring conversation between two women whose boys will grow up to challenge and change the world, Mary proclaims boldly, “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” (Luke 1:46, KJV).
Why is the Christmas story so powerful? Because there is no other story like it. There is no other day like it. There is no other love like it.
Do you journey with the magi from a faraway country, looking for the tiny village with the big name—Bethlehem? Does the part of the story about an uncharted star trigger your interest and curiosity? Perhaps it is the old prophetess, Anna, whose response to seeing the baby who will save the world is the part of the story you cherish the most. Or it is the strong voice of Simeon, raised in prophetic praise, when he takes the Baby Jesus into his arms and proclaims, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32, NIV).
There are villains, too. The faceless evil of an empire that demands a counting for taxation purposes, putting the Holy Family on the road to a place far from home. The callous innkeeper who sends a woman off to a stable to give birth. Herod, the corrupt head of state who cares about nothing except himself and brings down the greatest possible sorrow on the innocents of Bethlehem—resulting in the terrifying flight of the refugee family of Joseph, Mary, and the little Lord at risk.
All of these stories are part of the Christmas story. And regardless of which one you love the best—I do love those shepherds!—they all point to the birth of Jesus, and the coming of grace into our world, and the salvation that inspires our most heartfelt alleluias!
I am not one to quibble too much about the other Christmas, with its lights and gifts and sappy songs. It causes me no real grief or concern, because the center of the Christmas story—the center of every story, really—is still and always will be the story of Jesus.
Santa Claus and Rudolph are no match for the strong arms of the shepherds, for the wisdom of the Magi, for the power of Gabriel. Frosty the Snowman’s claims on my imagination pale before the bravery of Joseph or the fierce resistance against Herod. There is no Hallmark channel movie that can come close to the love of Mary for her Son who will be the Messiah. No gifts rival those of the wise men, and no heart-tugging ad or top 40 pop song comes close to the sky filled with angels.
Why is the Christmas story so powerful? Because there is no other story like it. There is no other day like it. There is no other love like it. In every generation since that first Christmas, this story has been told with reverence and awe and gratitude. Like believers from every nation, and in every age, we are drawn to the humble stable of Bethlehem. Our hearts are filled with love and amazement and wonder. In our own time we make that same proclamation that has been expressed for two millennia: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:1, NIV).
So find yourself a place near the manger. (I will be found among the shepherds.) Behold the Child who is also God with us. Join in the praise of the angels, or the worship of the magi, or the joyous tears of Anna, or the prayers of Simeon—or even just the devoted silence of Joseph. But come to the manger!
Whenever we celebrate the Savior’s birth—at whatever time of year, and in all the ways we have discovered to make the celebration distinctive and joyous and real—remember this one thing: Unto us a child is born! There is a baby in the midst of all of it—a baby who is truly God and truly man, who will grow and become strong; filled with wisdom, and the grace of God is upon him. (Luke 2:40)
As director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference, Ray Tetz is the named publisher of the Pacific Union Recorder.