The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Heaven and earth meet: That is the story of Jesus’ birth.
It starts with its feet planted firmly on earth, with recognizably human endeavors that many or most of us have experienced or can relate to—travel, birth, work, even the experience of being outside at night. And then heaven breaks in.
I’m guessing that many of our Christmas stories begin with travel. Getting from point A to point B at a busy travel time always involves some planning, some luck, and some risks. I’ve spent the last two evenings waiting for my children to arrive, fretting about the weather and the roads. Then I imagine the trip Joseph and Mary had to take: a trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem could be 70 miles, IF you were willing to go through Samaria. Given the bad feelings between Judeans and Samaritans, Mary and Joseph probably took the longer way, about 80 miles. And it wasn’t a completely level path, either—the walk included some climbing in the foothills of the Judean mountains. Though we like to think of Mary on a donkey, and though I happily read a story about a donkey to the children here most every year, I read recently that a donkey would have made the trip longer, not shorter. (Donkeys, it seems, set their own paces, and will not be hurried.)[i] Mary was at the end of her pregnancy, but she was also most likely a healthy and robust teenager. She probably had no difficulty walking alongside Joseph and making the trip to Bethlehem in 4 to 5 days. Travel: a pretty universal, human experience.
Another universal experience: they had to comply with the things their government demanded of them. Mary and Joseph walked out of necessity, not for pleasure. This couple isn’t out for some vigorous exercise, or taking a vacation. My children came home to a house that was mostly ready to make them welcome and comfortable, but there was no hotel or home waiting for this journeying couple. This is the story of poor people at the mercy of an Empire that tells them where to go and when, and doesn’t care much about how they get there, how hard it will be for them, or even if they’ll have a place to stay when they arrive.
We know that some things went well on this trip, and some less so. Crowded out of more comfortable accommodations, Mary and Joseph probably ended up in a cave where animals usually bedded down for the night. We know it was a cave, because the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built at the instructions of the Emperor Constantine, over the cave identified in the first century as Jesus’ birthplace. And there, Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” Swaddling clothes…. Bands of cloth. A layette for a very poor child.
Next the scene shifts to shepherds in the fields, out in the Judean countryside. Shepherds were also poor, probably even poorer than Mary and Joseph, who at least had a trade. Shepherds are people whose lives are dedicated to caring for and protecting animals, flocks of sheep. And shepherds are tough: they are prepared to fight off predators, of both the human and the animal variety.
So far, this is about as earth-bound as a story can get. A young couple expecting a baby. A long journey on foot. A cave for lodging, most likely with animals all around. A birth, and feedbox for a cradle. Straw to keep the baby warm. And shepherds, doing their job, watching for wild animals or poachers on a clear night. This is a story of life on earth, human life, life at a certain level of poverty to be sure, because, God chose the poor and humble to be the ones to welcome and recognize God-made-flesh.
[Why didn’t God reveal Jesus to the high and mighty? My theory is: those of us who are doing ok can coast along on the myth that we are self-made, and did it all on our own. The poor have no access to that myth. They know very well the provisional and fleeting nature of comfort and security. They know what it is to call out to God because there is no one else who can help. They know, probably better than most, that they are in God’s hands at every moment.]
And then, heaven breaks in. The silence of the shepherds’ night in the field is broken, at the appearance of an angel. This angel says what angels always say: “Do not be afraid!” “Fear not!” I understand heaven is always a little scary when we first encounter it. The angel brings an announcement of the birth, complete with instructions outlining who, where, and what it will look like. This is followed by an army of angels who also happen to be a choir of angels: They sing, a song right out of heaven!
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward mankind!”
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
Heaven and earth meet: That is the story of Jesus’ birth.
Give God glory, the angels sing, because God has visited earth with peace and goodwill.
God’s glory is in heaven and on earth, the angels sing, where peace and goodwill have been born.
This is the moment when God shows God’s goodwill, and this is how God shows it:[ii] there is no longer any division between heaven and earth.
Richard Rohr, a writer I love, tells a story about the nature of heaven.
A newborn’s precocious four-year old sibling tells her parents, “I want to talk to my new little brother alone.” The parents put their ears to the nursery door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”
For Rohr, that little girl’s insistence that she has a fading memory of heaven isn’t some kind of sentimental claptrap. We are born with heaven implanted in us, we are wired for heaven and the desire to return there.
“Heaven is first of all now and therefore surely later,” Rohr says. Heaven is union with God and with one another. And that can happen—does happen—right here on earth, right now in this life. It happened around Jesus all the time. It happens every time we allow our narrow notions of who is our neighbor to fall away so that we can experience compassion for those who are not like us, who we disagree with, who we think are wrong, wrong, wrong. It happens every time we set the table and gather around it for the Lord’s Supper. Heaven is first of all, now. And therefore, heaven is also, surely, later.
Our earthly-heavenly story ends with the shepherds—those poor, earthy recipients of the glorious heavenly message—venturing forth to see for themselves… hurrying to see what God has made known to them! (This is something I highly recommend. When you leave here for your Christmas dinner or to collapse into bed, hurry and make a concrete plan to go and see for yourself what God has done this night. Hurry.)
The shepherds go, and find things just as the angels had said. Heaven is on earth, napping in a feeding trough. The new parents are amazed, and tired, I imagine. They are left to settle in for the night, and the shepherds go forth, dancing, singing, praising.
Every character in the story goes forth with an unmistakable, unforgettable experience of God’s love. Though their lives may not have prepared them for it, they are God’s chosen dance partners at the beginning of the romance that will be God’s life in Jesus. Love is making a home in all of them… in Mary, in Joseph, in shepherds, in angels, and, of course, in Jesus. Love is making a home in them, and they are finding themselves at home in love.
Here’s the thing: if you and I can make a house a home, mostly ready to make our guests or our parents or our children welcome and comfortable… imagine (or remember) what it’s like when God does that. God wants to guide us home with the reminder that we are already there… heaven begins right here. The line between heaven and earth blurs because we are so at home in God’s love, so at one with God and with one another.
Heaven and earth meet. They not only meet, the boundary between them is obliterated: That is the story of Jesus’ birth. So welcome home. Welcome home to heaven on earth, in which our God comes to live with and among us. God wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Russell Saltzman, Biblical Travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey? https://aleteia.org/2017/01/24/biblical-travel-how-far-to-where-and-what-about-the-donkey/.
[ii] Rev. Viktoria Berlik.