Excerpt from Meditations on the Birth of Jesus
I am bring­ing you good news of great joy for all the peo­ple. —Luke 2:10

Pas­sage for Lec­tio Div­ina: Luke 2:1 – 20.

Joseph and Mary are the sub­ject of local gos­sip when the news cycle sud­den­ly shifts. No longer is Mary’s preg­nan­cy the talk of the town; now every­one is com­plain­ing about the order issued by Emper­or Augus­tus requir­ing that every Jew twelve years of age and old­er trav­el to their ances­tral city to be reg­is­tered. Not reg­is­ter­ing amounts to crim­i­nal tax evasion. 

The tim­ing couldn’t be worse. Mary is in her ninth month; any day the baby might arrive. Nev­er­the­less, they pack up and head to Beth­le­hem, some nine­ty miles to the south. Mary’s con­di­tion means fre­quent stops, mak­ing the long jour­ney longer. They final­ly arrive only to find all avail­able lodg­ing is occupied. 

Imag­ine being in this posi­tion. Joseph must find a place, and fast. A com­pas­sion­ate innkeep­er offers space in a cave that serves as a sta­ble. The space is dark and dank, crowd­ed with ani­mals, but it will have to do. Joseph makes a bed of fresh straw for Mary, who now is in full labor.

Move clos­er to where they are crouched near the open­ing to the cave. What smells are they try­ing to avoid? What sounds do you hear? This is no place for God’s Son to be born. The world goes on out­side, obliv­i­ous to the new cre­ation which has begun. 

The new­born Jesus draws his first breath of earth’s air, and heav­ing cries fill the small cave. Exhaust­ed, Mary and Joseph care­ful­ly wrap the new­born in strips of cloth and lay him in a feed­ing trough heaped with fresh hay. He qui­ets. Mary and Joseph hud­dle togeth­er, gaz­ing into the infant face of God. 

Luke does not linger here. He draws our atten­tion to a steep val­ley near­by where a group of shep­herds are set­tling their sheep for the night. They are in qui­et con­ver­sa­tion when an announce­ment arrives of such impor­tance that it will immor­tal­ize these for­get­table men. It is the news of the cen­tu­ry, of the mil­len­ni­um, of all mil­len­nia. If Augus­tus made a list of those who should receive such news, these men would be last. That they are first tells us some­thing about the kind of king­dom now break­ing in upon human­i­ty. A bright light switch­es on like a spot­light, illu­mi­nat­ing them, and an impos­ing angel appears. Ter­ri­fied, they shrink back. 

The angel speaks. What does his voice sound like? How does he appear? Notice the stunned expres­sions on the faces of the shep­herds, the move­ment of their bodies. 

Do not be afraid; for see — I am bring­ing you good news of great joy for all the peo­ple: to you is born this day in the city of David a Sav­ior, who is the Mes­si­ah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv. 10 – 12). 

The divine mes­sen­ger is joined sud­den­ly by an immense choir of angels. Hun­dreds with their mouths wide open, songs spilling out. Nev­er heard noth­ing like it before,” they would lat­er say. Nev­er seen noth­ing like it! Nev­er will again. It was spec­tac­u­lar. Jaw-dropping.” 

Then, as sud­den­ly as the choir appeared, the angels van­ish. Just like that.

In the stunned silence, one of the shep­herds asks if they should go see this won­der­ful thing that the Lord had told them about. So they scram­ble up the hill and can­vas the town, search­ing for a sta­ble and a new­born baby. 

Their search is reward­ed.

Imag­ine the scene when the mot­ley shep­herds smelling of wood fire and sheep burst in. Pic­ture Joseph and Mary’s star­tled expres­sions. The shep­herds hur­ry to the manger and point with won­der and excite­ment at the baby. He is exact­ly as the angel described. They were the first to hear the news. Now they are among the first to see the long-await­ed Messiah. 

Dis­ori­ent­ed and tired, Joseph sits up. He leans for­ward pro­tec­tive­ly. Mary is qui­et, watch­ing, lis­ten­ing as the sto­ry tum­bles out: some­thing about an angel announc­ing the birth of the Mes­si­ah — and a cos­mic choir. The angel told us where to find him,” the shep­herds explain. 

After a few min­utes they rush out again, spilling into the crowd­ed street out­side, telling every­one they meet what the angel had said.

All who heard it were amazed at what the shep­herds told them. But Mary trea­sured all these words and pon­dered them in her heart” (vv. 18 – 19). 

Did the incon­gruity of the set­ting reg­is­ter with the shep­herds? Did they stop to won­der why the Mes­si­ah was born in a sta­ble attend­ed by ani­mals? Some­day we can ask them. For now, we notice.

The arrival of God in human his­to­ry was hum­ble and awk­ward and messy. Every­thing appeared to align against God’s glo­ri­ous plan being ful­filled. Mary and Joseph were forced at every turn to adjust to unfold­ing events. Yet through their will­ing coop­er­a­tion, God’s will was accom­plished and hope was born. 

This is the way that God has always cho­sen to accom­plish his divine pur­pos­es. God invites ordi­nary per­sons in ordi­nary cir­cum­stances to merge their small­er sto­ries with God’s Epic Adventure. 

Notice that Mary paid close atten­tion to every detail. She was watch­ing, learn­ing. The set­ting is not what she had imag­ined, yet the embod­i­ment of God’s promise and love was asleep in her arms. He stirs in his sleep and turns his face toward the light. Mary smiles. All is well. 

Heav­en­ly Father, Lord Jesus Christ, indwelling Holy Spir­it — thank you for your gift of eter­nal life. My Christ­mas gift to you is my obe­di­ence, my life, my love. Hap­py Birth­day, Jesus!

Visio Div­ina

Spend a peri­od of time in per­son­al reflec­tion on the art­work below. You may find these steps of Visio Div­ina helpful: 

  1. Request. Ask God to guide your thoughts and impres­sions through the Holy Spirit. 
  2. Gaze. Take in the paint­ing. Notice its struc­ture, the place­ment of the peo­ple and objects in the art­work, the shape and form, the use of light and shad­ow, the emp­ty spaces. What catch­es your attention? 
  3. Reflect on what you see. Pay atten­tion to your impres­sions, thoughts, and feel­ings. How does the image deep­en your under­stand­ing of the text? 
  4. Respond and Receive. Car­ry the details of the image with you through the com­ing week in the way you might car­ry a word from Lec­tio Div­ina with you. You may find that God is invit­ing you to pray as the appro­pri­ate response to what he has shown you. What is God’s invi­ta­tion? Receive what God has shown you and rest in a pos­ture of obe­di­ence and devotion. 

In sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Hol­land, Rem­brandt van Rijn’s prints, like this one, were more high­ly regard­ed than his pre­cise­ly exe­cut­ed paint­ings. Print­ed from a cop­per plate etch­ing, The Ado­ra­tion of the Shep­herds: With the Lamp shows his abil­i­ty to cre­ate light and shade through fine lines and thick lines. The spon­ta­neous live­ly style wel­comes the observ­er into this extra­or­di­nary scene. Rembrandt’s unusu­al deci­sion to place Joseph in the fore­ground allows us to see his posi­tion in the Holy Fam­i­ly. Hold­ing the sleep­ing infant, Mary’s qui­et pres­ence bridges the space between Joseph and the shep­herds. Joseph’s open arms are extend­ed toward the shep­herds as they press in to see the Christ child. The semi­cir­cu­lar glow from the light of the lamp draws the fig­ures togeth­er. In this sim­ple line etch­ing Rem­brandt cre­ates the joy and hope of the first Christmas.

Going Deeper

  1. Look at Rembrandt’s por­tray­al of the first Christ­mas. How does the pic­ture make you feel? What draws your atten­tion? Pon­der the mes­sage the Lord would have you receive through your meditation.
  2. Like the shep­herds, have you received a mes­sage of hope from the Lord, either direct­ly or through the wit­ness of oth­ers? What makes it easy for you to receive this as being God’s word to you? What makes it difficult?
  3. The first Christ­mas was messy. In your cur­rent cir­cum­stances, what is catch­ing you by sur­prise? Say a prayer for help to rec­og­nize God’s pres­ence in the chaos of inter­rup­tions and unfold­ing events.

Excerpt­ed from the Ren­o­varé resource Med­i­ta­tions on the Birth of Jesus, copy­right 2019 Miri­am Dixon and Mar­garet Camp­bell. Down­load it free or pur­chase phys­i­cal copies.

Originally published December 2019

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