AS WE MOVE towards Christmas this year, what good news, what good counsel is out there?
We are certainly exhorted to maintain the North American tradition of spending as much as possible, but for people affected by the economic bad news, that may not sound very encouraging.
And many of us are developing a love-hate relationship to news in general these days. I find that I have an intense curiosity about “the news” at the same time as a reluctance to read or watch too much of it.
And into the midst of this time of great uncertainty and intense contradictions comes Christmas, the beginning of the good news that we call the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How do Christians, an audience that knows the story so well that our lips move as we hear it read, especially in the old language, respond in these different days?
I have been reflecting on the ways in which two audiences heard the story and responded when it was first told, and I have found some help in those reflections on the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
One influential audience was King Herod. He heard the forecast of this news from the wise men as they passed through Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem.
He quickly recognized the threat implicit in the words “king of the Jews.” His first reaction, Matthew tells us, was fear. Then came duplicity in his invitation to the wise men to return with all the details. They recognized the duplicity and chose to go home another way.
Herod’s next reaction was to translate the fear into fury. To be absolutely on the safe side, he ordered the slaughter of all the infants of the region. And in this way Jesus became a refugee at the very beginning of his life.
Herod’s reaction was the quick fix. He would remove the threat at whatever cost to others and at no danger to himself. He combined ruthlessness (a ruthlessness he exercised towards his own family whenever they became a threat) with impunity, because he had the power to do so.
The other audience was the shepherds. They heard the message after the fact. Their source was even more mysterious than foreigners; it was supernatural.
Like Herod, they believed the message, but otherwise their reaction was radically different. They went themselves to Bethlehem with curiosity, observed with reverence, and returned with awe.
Herod reacted in an imperial style, the shepherds in the way of ordinary folk.
Herod acted swiftly and violently, bringing death and grief to countless innocent people. The shepherds made the event an occasion for giving thanks and praise to God.
And both of these responses need to be measured by God’s original intention behind it all.
C.S. Lewis once said that if he were God, surveying the mess humanity had made of a wonderful creation, he would be sorely tempted just to sweep us all away and have another run at it.
But God’s way was to enter the creation as a participant, to take on all the vulnerability and uncertainty of human life, in Paul’s words to the church at Philippi, God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”.
God’s way would take a generation to come to fulfilment, and even then another Herod would attempt to act instantly, violently and with impunity to destroy God’s threat to ruthlessness and injustice.
Herod and his kingdom are gone; God’s kingdom proclaimed and inaugurated in Jesus is still at work.
Good news for those who hear with the ears of the shepherds.
In the words of a poem I remember from years ago: A baby in a box of straw
Was all of God the shepherds saw,
But they had heard the angels sing,
And so they worshipped him as king.
And now he comes to us instead
Within a little house of bread,
And as the shepherds worshipped, we
Adore him in this mystery.
A blessed Christmas to you this year, especially this year. Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.