But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”
One of the great wonders of the birth of Jesus is how it signaled the inclusion of those who did not fit into society’s view of an audience fit for a king. Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he sought to draw near and lift up those who were depicted as outcasts, vagrants, and inferior. This legacy began with his birth.
Besides Mary, the shepherds were the only ones who were directly told of Jesus’ birth. Herod and Joseph were visited in dreams. But Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and the shepherds were visited by a multitude of angels – singing and glorifying God amidst their birth announcement.
Today, we memorialize these shepherds in countless [white-washed] versions of the nativity. We picture the fields lighting up as this respectable bunch of sleepless sheep-herders descended from their fields in order to make good on their personal invitation to the bedside of Christ Jesus.
However, we too often forget that this profession was not one of great honor or recognition. Shepherds were nomadic people, who often traveled with their flock and would not frequently be found in the company of others from differing professions. They spent most of their time with animals and were probably not very well-dressed or clean or “presentable” for a king. And yet, they were the chosen audience to gather around the manger which held the Savior of the world.
The setting of Jesus’ birth would have made the shepherds feel right at home. Their own scents – the smoke of a fire, the stench of manure, the must of dirt-stained garments – masked within the smells of a stable. The animals, familiar. The baby, out of place.
Descending into the physical limitations of earth, bound up in the soft flesh of humanity, Yahweh became a helpless child and placed himself at the feet of those he came to love and lead and serve. Not only did he invite the shepherds to bear witness to his unceremonious birth, he also entered the world in a space that was familiar and known to those with whom he shared his first breaths. And he went on, throughout his ministry, to allude to shepherds in terms of honor and respect in several parables.
As clearly as Jesus entered the world without pomp and circumstance but rather, humbly and meekly, so he also entered the world with a determination to lift up the lowly and exalt the humble and meek into places of great honor.
There is no single narrative when it comes to knowing and being known by the Lord. We all practice presence in our own ways. But this is clear: those whom Jesus called – and continues to call – often confound the expectations of those who claim to know God best.
During our current season of such religious and political strife, when marginalized people groups are vulnerable and exposed to extreme judgement, hatred, and oppression, it is important to note that the news of Jesus’ birth was declared to be good news “for all people.” All are welcome. All are invited to join in the celebration. There is room for everyone at the table.
He lifts up the lowly. He humbles those who are already exalted and exalts those who are humble. The shepherds did not expect an invitation or place at the table. But their invitation was sealed and their seats of honor were waiting. How they identified, from then on, was changed – because they had an encounter with Jesus unlike any other.
If you are among the marginalized…
If you feel like the black sheep of your family…
If you have ever been hated or misunderstood or alienated…
If you can identify with a longing to be included in the mystery and goodness of Jesus’ love and affection when others have attempted to disqualify you…
This good news is for you.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No one can revoke your invitation, because Jesus has already reserved a seat at the table for you.
On this Christmas day, perhaps you don’t feel like there is a place for you at your family table or in a church pew or singing along to a familiar Christmas song. Maybe you feel completely unseen and alone. Perhaps it all feels hard and heavy and wearisome.
But in spite of that feeling, know that you are loved and seen and that there is a special place of belonging and familiarity reserved only for you in which you can see and feel and know that Emmanuel is here – with and for you – and that goodness is yours, too.
You are written into the story in a way unlike any other. Your encounter with the Divine is precious and valid and does not need to be witnessed by someone else who is more religious, or prosperous, or devout in order to be valid and beautiful and holy.
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”
May the goodness find you today.