Erik Strandness reflects on the Christmas story
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14)
The Jewish people knew that to see God’s face was to court death so when the glory of the Lord shone all around the shepherds, they must have thought their safe space had just become a danger zone. Fearing personal extinction, they were stunned to hear the angel of the Lord tell them not to fear but hear the good news of great joy for all people. Instead of an appointment with the grim reaper they were instructed to go to Bethlehem and meet their maker.
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. (Luke 2:15-16)
The shepherds were told that Christ the Lord had just been born. Even as image-bearers they were probably unaware that they were about to come face-to-face with The Image. Thinking they were going to be in the presence of a royal heir they missed the far more important fact that they were about to meet God in diapers.
“…the great pitfall of Christian art, especially when it tries to portray the birth of Christ, is sentimentalism…the Incarnation becomes merely a Christmas card with all the scandal taken out of it instead of what St. Paul called ‘a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,’ instead of the proclamation that the Creator of the ends of the earth came among us in diapers.” (Frederick Buechner)
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Looking upon the lowly manger they had to be thinking to themselves: “This isn’t how gods appear, where are the trembling mountains, the thunder, the lightning?”
Little did they know that his newborn cry would one day give voice to the groans of the planet and that his little round body hid an emptied God who had come to save us because we had become so full of ourselves.
And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2:17-18)
After the shepherds’ encounter with the baby Jesus, they could have bragged to their buddies that they had seen God’s face and lived, but deep down they knew what had really happened was that they had seen God’s face and received new life. In reality something did die, but it was their old self and now they were new creations.
Glory to God in the highest was made possible by the birth of a baby in the lowest.
Thank you all for reading my blogs over the last year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.