Magazine article The Christian Century

Go out in Joy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Go out in Joy

Article excerpt

Psalm 96 Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20

OH, THE MAJESTY and magnificence of God's presence! Oh, the power and splendor of his sanctuary! ... Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

After Advent's four weeks of preparation for God's coming, of learning again what it means to live lives predicated on hope in God, the time has come. We are expecting the arrival of our Savior. As always, God takes us by surprise. Majesty and magnificence are encompassed in swaddling clothes; God's splendid sanctuary is a manger-of-last-resort.

   God who risked all and as a child in Bethlehem cried in the dark and cold.
   Emmanuel: God is with us, from heaven to earth see the story unfold. The
   Word made flesh in a manger is laid, see, in a baby, God's glory.(*)

Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,

The angels provoke fear. Jesus was just about the only person to be comforted by an angel. Everyone else is confronted by God and usually called to some action when an angel shows up. No wonder the standard opening line in the nativity story is "Fear not." Even if an angel were to glide quietly into our presence, we would be startled. To have the night sky suddenly lit with the glory of the Lord would be little short of terrifying. The domestic scale of the manger is not the only truth about Jesus' birth: could the psalmist ever have envisaged the heavens declaring the glory of God in quite this way?

   The angel is back! overt glory shining round the fear-filled shepherds on
   the stony soil of Bethlehem. Brimming over with the news of joy, great joy,
   the back-up choir can't resist an encore in the darkened sky--God's concert
   hall--and shepherds in the front row seats!(**)

The shepherds glorified and praised God for what they had heard and seen.

I collect pictures of the annunciation and the Christmas story as painted by the old masters. It is fascinating to reflect on the different understandings of the incarnation that the artists have expressed. One of my favorite pictures of the shepherds is a detail from a 15th-century Dutch Book of Hours. Eight solid and solemn shepherds hold hands and are obviously doing a circle dance, although two are going in opposite directions and one seems to be standing still. Another shepherd points to heaven, where the words of the angel appear in large letters. Their expressions do not suggest even a glimmer of excitement--these are sturdy, no-nonsense shepherds--but as joy seeps into their souls, their feet cannot help dancing. …

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