Here we are together on Christmas Eve. I hope all your gifts are under your tree and all your cookies frosted, your “to-do” list short and your peace, long and stretching out to those around you.
On this night, whatever date it might have been, those couple of thousand years ago, the very highest of the heights came by commandment to the very lowest of the low in Israel. Those shepherds, unwashed, likely somewhat unkempt, were Sabbath-breakers by trade, were tending the blood payment for the sins of the people, when suddenly the night sky was ablaze with creatures that had come, perhaps in the blink of an eye, from the Presence of God.
Here is the grand dichotomy, in all of this account: as they sang the glory of God in the atmosphere, they would never be able to sing the song the shepherds will sing. They will never sing the Song of the Redeemed.
We would so love to share their angelic spotlessness. That kind of cleanness is enviable. It seems to come from perfect obedience and a native and genuine disposition toward glorying in the Most High.
Still, we do not get to give ourselves a pass in this life. While they are perfectly obedient, we have the Spirit of Christ alive in our breasts … think how they might covet that! They bow to a glory they will never experience for themselves. They did see one third of their fellows fall, and that without reparation. We, on the other hand, don’t perfectly understand that kind of finality, either. Perhaps we ought better to respect it.
We believe they must have known that salvation was coming to the earth. Surely they could see our condition. Surely they knew, when Jesus their King stepped down from His throne and His place at the right hand of the Father, that what He left to do was momentous beyond history, time, and understanding. Yet the angelic host knew, too, that it was completely fitting with His Person. They hadn’t seen it before, but they had seen Him. He was always the Lamb (speaking of shepherds), the Lamb Slain Before the Foundation of the World.
What always had been was about to Be. Never will they know Redemption; never will we know heaven without it. Though they can see, they cannot relate, but the glory of the occurence filled their song and filled the skies and filled the hearts of those shepherds, for shepherds do not customarily leave their sheep unattended. I like to think that the joy and glory of the angels was that their Sovereign and God was about to get what He desired, a people to be His own, one with Him, forever, His of their own will, not through fear of judgment but by the agency of His grace. These are things that angels can only admire.
Angels don’t make themselves manifest and sing aloud over the meadows in the middle of the night very often. This is Christmas. Our sparkly paper and bows and sweet treats are so paltry, so inadequate to portray the wonder of that night, but our rejoicing can overflow in all our celebration.
I hope, I pray, that sometime this day or evening, as our Advent candles are lit or while we sit and watch them glow, that everything will be done that must be and that everything else will fade away and that we will listen, listen … listen … to hear the angels sing.
Is it possible that in our worship, we can take them back to that night, singing songs of exaltation in the halls where they abide, keeping watch over us, by day and by night?
“Gloria in Excelsis Deo …”
And in that 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 fear.
And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;
for to 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 babe 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 men with whom he is pleased!”
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 babe lying in a manger.
And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child;
and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:8-20)
Madonna and Child
Fyodor Bruni, 1858