The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1646) - Workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn
Perhaps like many of you, Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. It’s somewhat ubiquitous to say so, I know, but it’s true for me for all the reasons that it’s true for so many people – the memories of family celebrations, of the traditions associated with the season, of the general feelings of joy and warmth and good will toward men.
As a child, I especially remember the magic of Christmas morning. After all the anticipation and expectation, after so much waiting, it finally arrived. As children, of course, we were waiting for presents primarily, but that same idea – of the anxious waiting and the wondrous amazement – tends to resonate with us long after childhood has ended. And it’s something deeper than just a fond memory, something more than nostalgia – the arrival of Christmas morning speaks to us at the very core of who we are.
Nowadays, you hear a lot about keeping the “Christ” in Christmas, and I understand the point. In our ever more commercialized society – amid all the materialistic noise and celebratory hoopla – there are some who want to split off the holiday season from the identity of Christmas. But I think perhaps we sometimes give those forces a little too much credit. Because as much as we may at times get distracted by all the presents, and the parties, and the shopping, and everything else, we know deep down the real reason for our joy this Christmas morning, and it’s none of those things. We are joyous because a Savior has been born to us.
In the Gospel today, the shepherds make haste to Bethlehem to see “this thing that has taken place” as they say. Having received in the night this amazing message of the angels – “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to people of good will” – they are changed somehow, they feel the desire deep within them to go and visit the Christ child. They are wondrously amazed at the arrival of someone they had not even expected. When this joyous news of his birth reaches them, they abandon their flocks to go and meet this newborn king.
What is that the shepherds found there in the manger in Bethlehem? The Gospel tells us that too – Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus. Encountering this holy family, despite the humble circumstances surrounding them, the shepherds are transformed into something else – they become prophets, messengers, evangelizers – going to tell everyone about this Good News that had been made known to them.
What was it that changed them? Nothing other than a little child. And yet in that baby Jesus, the shepherds recognized something sublime – the face of the invisible God, the perfect image of the Father made visible, the Savior promised by God who is God himself. That is a joyous thing, a thing of wonder and amazement, a thing that we ourselves would do well to return to and contemplate today and every day. Because just as it is in our day, the world of the shepherds was a cold, chaotic, desperate place – and yet in the manger at Bethlehem, they found a cause for joy, and having found it, they wanted nothing other than to share that joy with others.
My friends, the challenge of Christmas is not just to be truly joyous – it’s to allow that joy to invade our cold and chaotic hearts in such a way that it never truly leaves us – to allow the joy of this morning to resonate within us in every morning, in every day, in every dark and terrible night that we will yet face, and in every person we encounter. Christmas means we can stay with our joy and it stays with us, because he has a name and a face and a message of love: Emmanuel, God-with-us.
This Christmas, let’s make a journey with the shepherds to the manger at Bethlehem to see again – to see anew – this thing that has taken place, this child that has been born for us. Let’s take a moment to remember that old feeling of the joy of Christmas morning – perhaps to look into the bright eyes and excited smile of a child – and recover there our own childlike expectation and excitement, not for what lies under the tree but for who has come to dwell among us. A light has dawned for us, a Savior has been born for us … come, let us adore him.