Candle Lighter: “The Light of the world has come!” (As you light the Christ candle.)
Reader: “Glory to God in highest heaven,”
Response: “and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
Reader: “The glorious word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
I would guess you have heard this passage read on Christmas Eve almost as many times as you are years old! Think of it. It’s the magnificent culmination of thousands of years of anticipation in such an understated entrance of God into the world. At the risk of repeating what you already know, I thought I’d add some context to this most familiar account.
At this particular time in Roman history, there were also censuses in Spain, Syria, and Gaul in addition to Judea. Rome had firm control of the Mediterranean world. In some ways, reporting for a census was sort of like producing a birth certificate, except you were the proof you were born there. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about eighty miles. Even riding on a donkey, we’re talking of a trip of several days. But notice the Bible says nothing about a donkey. And I would not assume that Mary was nine months pregnant when they started their eighty mile journey! The phrase “while they were there” seems to indicate they may have been there for an extended period of time. It could well be that they each had relatives living in Bethlehem. Family lineage was huge in the Jewish culture as borne out by the lists of genealogies throughout the Scriptures. At any rate, Jesus was born during their stay there. “There was no lodging available for them” is a much better translation than “there was no room for them at the inn,” especially since there were no inns in Bethlehem at that time! “Lodging” would refer to a guest room in a private house or a public shelter for travelers. Neither were available, hence, the manger and animal shelter served as the delivery room for the King of kings!
Shepherds were viewed as poor, common humble people who tended their flocks outdoors, sometimes through the cold winter months as well. We don’t know the actual month of Jesus’ birth, though with some biblical reasoning late summer or September is a more likely time from. (E.g. Judean shephards are not in the fields with their flocks in the winter months.) As with Zechariah and to a lesser degree with Mary, the shepherds were frightened at the angels’ appearance, though this angelic entrance into our world was quite a bit more dramatic. The message was clear, a Savior has been born. The angels mention again that Jesus is wrapped snugly in strips of cloth as a sign, the normal custom for newborns in that day and even in ours. Such a practice provides a newborn comfort and security, feeling somewhat similar to the coziness of the womb.
Luke, who most likely got all this information from Mary herself, gives us this account simply and in a straightforward manner. But think about it. Since the dawn of creation and that devastating moment in the Garden of Eden when a perfect, sinless relationship between man and God was permanently destroyed, humans and all of creation looked forward to a coming Redeemer. We are looking at thousands and thousands of years. Yet, on this particular day, at some point the Creator of the universe emerged from the womb, God in human flesh, fully, completely human in every way and fully divine as he had been for all eternity. Could it have been a more humble entrance?
The one who created vast worlds measured in light years, arrives as the Light of the world with a cry that pierces his own universe. We can’t begin to imagine the humility involved in such love for ones made in his own image. At some point down the road, we’ll get to join the angels in “Glory to God in highest heaven” and we’ll be there! Merry Christmas!
Music: “Fanfare and Carol, O Come, All Ye Faithful” arr. David Wilcocks Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble and Bach Choir
Bonus: “Mary, Did You Know?” Vocative with Mark Lowrey, (the guy who wrote the song sings it) DON’T MISS THIS!!!! Best setting of this I’ve ever heard. Astounding voices.
O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon the earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God in glory, everlasting. Amen. ―BCP