Every Christmas Eve, my family reads through the nativity story. This year, I was particularly struck by the appearance of angels to the shepherds:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)
The climax of the angel’s declaration seems to be “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” The Messiah had come! However, it is not until later that the veil of heaven bursts open with what we now imagine as angelic choirs singing Handelian choruses. The moment when that heavenly host could no longer be restrained was after the seemingly anti-climactic statement, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Perhaps heavenly hosts are simply more polite than mortal audiences, so they waited for the angel to finish its announcement before they began cheering. But, I like the idea of an anxious angelic audience unable to contain the overflowing joy of this occasion, suddenly erupting in songs of praise. And I like thinking that it was that final statement which induced their outburst: Not simply the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, but the birth of this Messiah who would condescend from eternal glory to be born in a stable and laid in a manger.
This thought reminds me of the following poem, by Leslie Leyland Fields, entitled, “Let the Stable Still Astonish:”
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: "Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place." ?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, "Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here ----
in this place."
On Christmas, I join with that heavenly host in praising a God who condescends to birth in a stable, to life among lepers, to death by crucifixion, and, ultimately, to me.