The Pilgrim God: Reflections on the Story of Jesus
7. Angels And Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
The night of Jesus' birth was a night for angels and shepherds. Angels sang his praises in heaven; shepherds adored him on earth. It was an odd combination. The shepherds were outcasts among humans. The angels were at the highest level of creation. The bottom and the top of intelligent creation celebrated while most of the human race slept through the night.
Why were the angels so excited? God becoming human did nothing for them personally. Their fate was already sealed. Those who had not fallen were already saved and those who had fallen were forever damned with no second chance. Of course, the angels who had chosen God had a tendency to celebrate anything that God did.
However, Augustine suggests another reason for their happiness. The coming of Jesus signified the beginning of the process that would reopen heaven to the human race. Now humans could fill up the gaps in the heavenly city left by those angels who had joined Lucifer in rejecting God. Misery may or may not love company, but happiness certainly does and the angels rejoiced in the prospect of having so many other creatures sharing their heavenly bliss.
Perhaps the angels saw that the birth of Jesus was an invitation to others to join the heavenly banquet, that banquet that had been prepared from the beginning of time but which could not really get going until all the seats were filled. The places left empty by those devils who had other business to attend to (their own self-glorification), could now be filled with human beings. The song of the angels was thus a very simple song. They sang,
Let the party begin!
Of course we don"t know if all this is true but it is a nice thought. It is comforting to hear that on Christmas Eve others were pleased at the prospect of humanity's newborn chance at salvation because of the coming of God as a human being.
The angels sang and shepherds adored. Why did the Lord come to shepherds rather other human beings on that Christmas Eve? The answer is that he did come to others but in different ways. God is present to all humans at every moment of their lives. He speaks to every human but only some listen and only some act on the message heard.
God came to the shepherds through angelic choirs and perhaps that dramatic method was an advantage, but he came to others in other ways, ways that were best suited to them as individuals. The song of angels moved the shepherds to belief and action because they were prepared to believe and act. They responded to the song by saying:
Let's take a chance! Let's set aside our usual occupation! Let's disrupt our lives and go over to Bethlehem and see if we can find this God-child!
Find him the did and as Luke reports (2:18-20),
... they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, and all who heard of it were amazed at the report given them by the shepherds.
We don't know what happened to the shepherds after that. We don't know if the coming of the Lord to the shepherds on that one occasion changed their lives forever, whether or not they dedicated themselves to do God's will for the rest of their lives. Probably not. Only Mary and John the Baptist were that firm in their commitment throughout a lifetime. Most of us poor humans need the Lord to come again and again to us to keep us from making eternal fools of ourselves. Seeing God once, we may have a momentary high, but then we need the quiet action of God's grace to keep us from going off the deep end again, believing that finally and forever we are saved and will never again be conquered by a temptation to ignore the Lord or to disobey his will.
Even if we have seen God in some way, we need the grace of God to prepare for his next coming, a coming which may not be as pretty as his coming as the Christ-child. The shepherds who were "converted" by the pleasing infant in the crib, would need great grace to stand seeing the end of this infant, now twisted and deformed on a criminal's cross.
Still, there is a good chance that those shepherds did finally succeed in making it to the heavenly banquet. On at least one occasion they had shown the energy to go out of their way to see the Lord. Perhaps this was the beginning of a habit that would bring them back to the Lord again and again throughout their lives. If so, no matter what else happened to them in their lifetime, in the end they would join their angelic friends at the banquet singing the praises of their new-found God.
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