Merry Christmas to each and every one of you! We’ve watched and we’ve waited and now it is Christmas Eve. I love hearing Christmas Carols at this time of year. Music has a way of touching the soul in a way that simple spoken words cannot. Music has the power to move us to tears and move us to action. Even a single line of a song can make us feel emotion in a deeply profound way. At an Advent service in my 3rd year at Wake Divinity we sang the hymn “O Holy Night” and I was struck by the words “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, when Mary learns that she, a poor, unmarried peasant girl from Nazareth, has been chosen to bring Jesus to birth, she sings. She sings because, in spite of the fact that in her society a pregnant unmarried woman would only be worthy of death, her soul felt its worth.
Nine months and a difficult ninety mile journey later Mary and Joseph find themselves in Bethlehem, the home of Joseph’s family for a census required by the Roman Emperor. Even though they were in Joseph’s hometown they were unable to find a place to stay; not with members of Joseph’s family, and not even at an inn. With no place to rest from their long and dangerous travels, all that was available was the place where the animals were kept and fed, isolated from every other person in town.
Did Mary’s soul feel its worth then? Did Joseph’s? I would imagine that it felt like that night would never end.
Separation from community is not an experience unique to this story. It’s been all around and something we feel strongly this year, perhaps more so than any other. So much of our life as church has been in separation, and I know that that is something we’ve grown weary of. Holiday traditions have had to change dramatically. Families aren’t able to gather for time together. This year we gather for Christmas Eve worship on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom instead of in person. None of us could have predicted where this year would lead. At this time, do our souls feel their worth?
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth is remarkably brief, because believe it or not, the event of his birth itself is not all that miraculous. The scandalous miracle of the Christmas Story is actually what happens next. Way out on the fringes of the city, Shepherds tended their flocks before settling down for the night, in the winter cold. To be a shepherd was to be part of the lowest group in working class society. They lived isolated from the rest of their community, with only animals and each other for company. Sound familiar? The Shepherds’ everyday existence mirrors the very situation Mary and Joseph found in Bethlehem. They were marginalized, a people whose souls would have felt little worth, yet like Mary, they too are chosen for some very special news.
The fact that Shepherds were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth is utterly astounding. The birth of a baby endowed with titles like Savior and Messiah which means “anointed one,” would have had great political consequence for those who ruled, and so you would expect that the news of such an event would have been shared with people of great power first. Yet, the Angel brings this news to the Shepherds instead, declaring that they “are bringing [the Shepherds] good news of great joy for all the people.” The announcement is opened up far beyond those in power, and is made personal — as if to say to these shepherds, these marginalized of society, your life matters. The angel says to the Shepherds, “I am bringing you good news…to you is born this day…This will be a sign for you.” And so they are brought back into the fold, the angels sing praises of God’s peace, and the Shepherds’ souls felt their worth.
The Shepherds are moved by the angels’ song and dash off to find this child, whose birth they were chosen to hear about.They find this brand new family, dwelling among animals, just like they did. Now, the Shepherds could have kept this marvelous experience all to themselves, they could have let the hope and joy inspired by a little newborn baby remain theirs alone, yet they sing. They sing glory and praises to God. Their song has been heard through time and reaches our ears this night, so that nothing, not even a pandemic can try to tell us that we don’t matter, that even in our separation our souls have worth. In spite of our inability to be the church building this year, Christ’s presence is indeed with us, in the form of a Child born unceremoniously where almost no one could see and yet shepherds, separated from community were still able to be part of the story and on this night we are too. Let us sing this Good News, until every soul feels its worth.