Archive for December 23rd, 2008

Church of the Holy SepulchreAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Part I: Getting the Whole Story
Part II: The Time of Jesus’ Birth
Part III: Jesus’ Parents
Part IV: The Location of Jesus’ Birth
Part V: King Herod
Part VI: Names and Towns

The Bottom Rung of the Social Ladder

The first witnesses of the birth of Jesus in the scriptures (apart from Mary and Joseph) were the shepherds mentioned in Luke 2.

While Christmas pageants often depict these shepherds as middling-to-older men with beards and staves, it is much more likely that the shepherds were young girls and (possibly) prepubescent boys. In the Bedouin culture of the Middle East, from ancient times through even today, shepherding is not considered “men’s work”. Rather, it is the bailiwick of unmarried girls, from age 8 through their early teens, and boys, prior to the age of accountability.

We see this in the Old Testament, with the daughters of Jethro and the boy David. In reality, this work is more time-consuming than it is difficult, and the men in the Middle Eastern culture rarely stooped to such work. There are ancient records which also reference this practice, noting that in some judicial matters, it required two shepherds to constitute the same burden of proof as one adult.

And so it is that the witnesses to whom the birth of Christ was announced were the lowest of the low on the social ladder – children watching their family’s sheep. This is incredibly fitting, as it is the last piece of the picture painted in Luke of the coming of Christ.

Seeing The Picture

In Eastern/Hebrew literature, of which the Bible is a prime example, the pictures and symbols in any particular story are just as important, if not more so, than the literal concepts conveyed. And so, when we examine the Christmas story, we have a number of pictures in scripture which paint the picture of coming of God With Us, Emmanuel.

We have the Creator of all that exists, who could have arrived in the greatest of splendor, coming instead in the weakest of human forms – a baby. His earthly parents were not kings or of royalty, but rather teenagers living in the disgrace of their families, unable to get a place to stay in town full of relatives. He arrived not in a great palace, but rather in a stinking shepherd’s cave in the shadow of the greatest palace of one of the greatest kings of the earth. And then, rather than royalty, the witnesses to his birth were the lowest of the low, as well – children staying on the nearby hills watching over their family’s sheep.

In this picture we see that, as he taught 30 years later, Jesus came not to follow the means of worldly power – wealth, politics and strength – but through serving and humility. He was willing to arrive and serve as the lowest of the low, so that we would have an example of what we are to be.

Unfortunately, though, we try to sanitize this story, and in so doing, we miss the picture of the baby who was God With Us.

And how do we celebrate his birthday? By giving gifts to each other, rather than to him. How would you feel if your family held a birthday party for you, but instead of celebrating your birthday and giving you gifts, they left you all alone and went into the other room and exchanged gifts with each other?

If we are really celebrating Jesus’ birthday, we ought to be giving the gifts to him? But how do we do this? He told us:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

So perhaps it would be best if we celebrated Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot, its likely date in the fall, and that we save the winter celebration in December to celebrate all of the other gifts given to us by God.   And then, rather than Amazon, Ebay and Wal-mart, we could shop for his birthday gifts in places like this, this, this or this.

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