The Shepherds’ Exodus and Ours
A Reflection on the Gospels
of 25 December and the Christmas I
by David Somerville+
Early twentieth century preacher, Vance Havner, once noted that “Christmas is based on an [original] exchange of gifts: The gift of God to humankind––his gift of his Son; and the gift of humanity in response to God.” Scripture and tradition tell us how and when that happened – a long time ago, we are first given to believe; but in the overall scheme of creation from the time of the “big bang” more than thirteen billion years ago, the occurrence was actually more recent than yesterday, and, as we grow with God, a daily process.
Faith in the truth that God is a being that gives unconditionally caused at least three ancestor communities to remember the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel, in Bethlehem – each in their own ways. These communities insured that their memories would be handed over to all generations until Jesus returns again in glory.
So it is by faith, then, that the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel is about a nitty-gritty historical event. We believe that it really happened! Make no mistake about that. But the infancy narratives deal with more than the Christ child. They are also about the diverse communities, each of which had their distinctive ways of expressing their beliefs about this baby. But – and this is the important thing — the beliefs share a common core. The eternal Word of God entered into the affairs of human existence, a time and place that had been injured by sin, causing much of the creation to be unfit for human habitation.
The presence of God within this mess of the human situation was not a popular idea. Many of the elitists of the gentile world in the first century really preferred the spotlessly unchanging doctrines of such great schools as that of the Stoics, the Academy of Plato, and the mathematics of Pythagoras. To them the very idea that the human dimension of the Creator would appear in a fecal-stained livestock shelter was preposterous. It is an idea that still gets repressed with the preciousness we find in the children’s section of places like Books-a-Million. More often than not, the manger in these publications looks like a pretty bassinette, lined in fluffy cotton.
The stories in Luke, Matthew, and also the poetry of the Fourth Gospel, each offer their different “takes” on the mystery of the infinite love behind the cosmos brought down to earth. One thing they have in common: The landing zone was not a fluffy bassinette! Whatever form we prefer, the different accounts of the incarnation all contribute to making our life a little less frightening as we float through space aboard the tiny blue globe that Prayer C calls “our island home”. These writings carry with them the bedrock where one can grasp the anchor of hope with complete security.
The anchor, as taught to us by the author of Hebrews, is a good symbol for hope because it holds the vessel of the soul in place. It disempowers the waters of cultural chaos around the hull. They have no authority over the captain who knows where the vessel will be taken, and who is ready to begin the ship’s voyage whenever he gets the order. But in the meantime, the anchor gives the vessel its Sabbath time of waiting in the “blessed assurance” that comes from the spiritual security of God. That said, it is to be acknowledged that no ship was designed to stay forever in the harbor in which it was built.
Sherry, my wife, tells of her first days as a college undergrad, who, one Fall morning embarked from the harbor of her small town to the state university system with her suitcase for the dorm in the back of her Chevy Vega. She was happy, a confident young woman, excited about all the prospects of the larger world we know as Statesboro.
One morning in October, as a chill began to push another sleepy summer aside, the young woman took her seat in the university lecture hall, and the professor began to speak on the subject of what he called “objective” history as an enlightened, modern scientific endeavor. “Nothing in the study of history is sacred” he began. “It is about facts that are documented as proven to have happened, and good history stands up well to the skepticism of cross examination that looks for internal contradictions in what is being investigated. He went on to assert that in a couple of months “many of you folks will be reading once again a piece of work that, when analyzed, is not good history”. It is a bunch of myths! These are the stories of Jesus and the circumstances of his birth. He then proceeded with a recital that all of us in professional ministry have heard before – that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke have several discrepancies. Sherry listened to the professor’s examples: 1) that Quirinias did not begin his office as governor of Judea until Jesus was at least seven years old, 2) that no research has successfully produced evidence that a census requiring families to return to their ancestral villages had been taken at the time of Jesus’ birth. Then the prof brought up a third rather interesting point — that Chinese astronomers independently recorded a supernova about 5 years before the Common Era in the constellation, Capricorn. “Well, what does that prove?” he asked rhetorically. “Nothing! The star of Bethlehem is unknown to the Gospel of Luke. It comes from the other, and very different infancy narrative, the one in the Gospel of Matthew. Why didn’t these Gospel writers collaborate with their findings to get independent verification? If you’re gonna have good science, you need to demonstrate that kind corroboration,” the professor said. “So what do folks nowadays do? They believe both stories without question, because,” he sneered, “the Bible told me so! So again, that is not good science.
The lecturer continued to drone on: “Luke describes an angel’s appearance to local shepherds. Nothing is said of any wise men from the East following a star. But soon there will be lots of nativity scenes for sale, fully equipped with shepherds together with kings. They’re all gonna be huddled again in the lean-to shelter adoring the Holy Family.
All of this was said before the professor got up his full head of sarcastic steam, which finally exploded with the rhetorical question, “So, Class, What have we got? Two worlds, two Bethlehem’s, two Baby Jesus’s in two universes and one Bible??? Within ten business days, the professor received letters from a couple of Baptist ministers, a Lutheran pastor, an Episcopalian, and a Catholic monsignor!
Approaching the infancy narratives in both of the gospels this way is pointlessly boneheaded. It reflects a narrow bias: that the only kind of truth that is of any value at all is of the technical kind, originally intended to serve young America’s pragmatic agenda. It was a philosophy of education that emphasized those “how-to” skills; a good choice for pioneers civilizing a frontier, while developing a populace competent enough to participate responsibly in their democracy. American public schools still lean toward a harsh pragmatism. When budgets are cut, and programs dropped, what programs are first to go? Music, poetry, art, and physical training (except, of course, for certain very popular sports showcasing the best athletes).
It may be that the professor was just doing his legitimate job – challenging young minds to explore the unfamiliar. Then they could re-evaluate their spirituality – if they wanted to, but that would be on their own time.
A critical, “scientific” analysis of the pre-modern experience of revelation can be an exercise in intellectual frivolity, replacing one kind of narrow-mindedness with another. How so? Holy Writ is mistakenly presumed to be about something “objective” – like how to read a compass and navigate a wagon over the seen wilderness of the Rockies to California. The Gospels, on the other hand, are of an unseen wilderness of a different journey – the inward one not to California, but to the state of heart we in our faith call the “Kingdom of God”, or, perhaps, just simply “abundant life”. The Georgia professor’s lecture ignored the difference, treating New Testament with its rich parabolic images as if they were like badly written technical manuals. They are nothing of the sort.
I had some fun the other day composing a silly story in the next few paragraphs to offer a caricature of such fallaciousness.
Once upon a time there was a cathedral so magnificent in its beauty that just approaching it would lead to the healing of any crippled pilgrims hobbling towards it. The cathedral stood on a hill so its transcendent beauty was also enhanced by its location. This grand edifice was an inspiring thing to look at from a distance – especially in the early morning with the rising sun momentarily being eclipsed by its massive towers. A sublime image and symbol to be sure! But then the cathedral was dismantled block by block by a trio of scientific analysts. They thought maybe the cathedral’s transformative powers were due to some physical or chemical trait in a certain type of stone block in some of its buttresses. So the great house of prayer was dismantled block by block. Its different pieces were sorted into piles according to type, so that after the piece with the mysterious energy in it was identified for further study, the building could be re-assembled.
“Why take a look at block number 34947a.” one researcher in a lab coat said to his colleague. “This is evidently granite from Vermont. Of that there can be no doubt! There is nothing else particularly significant about it.”
“Yes, I agree” his partner replied. “Such also is the case with number 52830c. It is of red marble — from Sweden obviously. My colleague from near-by Norway is familiar with Swedish sandstone. He has convinced me that nothing significant ever comes from Swedish stone!
Then appeared a third investigator, who just pulled up in the E-Z-Go the team used for shuttling between the many piles of tagged and numbered blocks, laid out in rows and columns over the research field. Except for his a yellow hard hat, he was a dead ringer to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Overhearing the remark about Sweden, this disciplined rationalist said “Of course!” He then shifted his gaze to something else in another pile: “I’d like to call your attention to number 79366b. That one is more problematic. Clearly it is of a yellowish sandstone. But where, exactly it came from, we cannot be sure. It may have originated in the state of Montana, or Wales in the British Isles, or possibly Egypt. But if we find traces of a radioactive isotope in it, then that would definitely make it from Montana! Now that just might also be the solution to our mystery.”
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared in front of the golf cart. Uncharacteristically the analysts were paralyzed by fear.
The angel said, “Fear not! There is no time for lying there on the ground scared out of your wits. Rise up! Reassemble that cathedral now exactly the way it was without delay! Then get your butts inside and hold a vigil there in it during the darkness, until the dawn comes. When the East window behind the high altar begins to glow, bow down in reverence with thanksgiving for the Light that that has come into the world!
“…. Oh, and you with the E-Z-Go…. Don’t forget to take off the hard hat when you pray. It is not a valid yarmulke. And with that, Boom! The angel ascended into heaven.
Things and schemes of human origin are well understood by disassembling them to examine their parts, and how they all fit together – like the internal combustion engine of an automobile with its transmission, drive shaft, and rear axle. But there are other things, the grandeur of which transcends the sum of its parts — like the chemistry of a living being that has such mysterious complexity with its intracellular organization that it not only becomes conscious, it becomes conscious of its consciousness! It is willing to wonder how he or she came to be and why. The beings with this God-searching consciousness have, simply put, a certain restlessness about them that has appeared with their evolvement over the millennia of their creation. Somehow a mysterious unity that makes up the individual emerges in a magnificently complex body with parts that function in concert with one another. But if all the pieces are broken apart, the mystery vanishes. Then what? The mystery continues to be remembered as real!
The mysteries of our faith, housed in the company of the faithful, namely the Church, may have many pieces in them that appear to be separable; they look like they can be taken apart for analysis – like the parts of an automobile. But that is delusional. The analysis of a soul with its yearning for conversation with God is neither possible nor appropriate.
Some things, especially the things of God, are inextricably associated with our individual, i.e. un-dividable, souls. These – and it is probably a mistake even to call them “things” – appear to have come from a reality that desires relational love. Alone, each soul is in the bondage of isolation. In such a state, the fulfillment of their potential in self-actualization remains allusive even though they have within them a number of organized, meaning-filled cultural memories, around a yet undiscovered commonality they share with all others. To make their varied exoduses from their existential loneliness, they must experience their first gift at the initiative of God. How each individual responds to, and describes the gift involves a lot of variation. For many, I suspect, it involves the nurture by parents and sponsors that leads to baptism with the education and guidance that follows.
Both as individuals and as a whole, Jews are not culturally the same as Greeks (So what else is new?). Celts do not think like Africans; nor will they find it easy to know exactly how South Sea Islanders experience their consciousness. And yet, nevertheless, all human types have the ability first to understand that there are horizons beyond their local experience, and then make the free choice to fear or love the other. This good process begins with the give-and-take activities signified by the rituals and customs in the exchange of gifts in community. This self-evident reality is more relevant to human experience than a scien-tistic lecture, which can be just as narrow and as doctrinaire as a bigoted religion.
The foregoing are just a few thoughts about how I am assured of the truth in the Reverend Havner’s point noted at the onset of this reflection. A way consistent with my experience of the good Christmas life is that the Feast of God’s incarnation is really a synthesis, or uniting of God to God’s beloved, which reveals to the beloved human soul that its hunger for meaning has been heard. This is Good News, for what is life without meaning but death? The blessing of meaning, I believe, is implicit in all pure hearted gift giving and exchanging activities; its “sacrament” is the unwrapping of a thoughtfully chosen gift that conveys to the recipient that he or she is known, loved, and appreciated for his or her uniqueness.
Mr. Havner’s conclusion about our Gospel, then, becomes a uniting, reconciling journey toward the health and wholeness popularly called salvation “…when we present our bodies as a living sacrifice and …give ourselves to God. Only then,” says the evangelist, “can any of us truly be transformed…” by our Christmas blessing. That cannot happen if the first overture from heaven gets no response other than to take God’s gift as a one-way transaction to humankind, and break it down for analysis. To do that is to miss the divine intention, and fail to join with the One who created us because of desire for a give-and-take relationship. By our reciprocating, on the other hand, with our modest-by-comparison gifts of thanksgiving, we celebrate our new exodus from isolation via the shepherd’s way through the night to the light that has come into the world.