When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The Angels come to earth, bringing to us the gospel and the worship of heaven. Angels are bearers and personifications of the message. Through them, heaven reaches down to earth.
The shepherds are the people of Israel. They are the least regarded and lowest status, since their lives are semi-nomadic, almost never bringing them into the city or political life. Nonetheless, shepherds are representative of Israel. The prophets liked Israel’s rulers to shepherds, either good rulers or bad ones, good guardians or predatory ones.
The shepherds said Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place…
Bethlehem is the city of David. The shepherds come to worship the Lord. Shepherds are both outsiders, and they represent Israel’s rulers who are often referred as shepherds of their people.
This is the search for man. This is the revelation – which is what ‘epiphany’ means – of the truth of man. Here is the true man, the real and complete man. Now we can say, Show us this man! Show us what a real man is! Where can we see the truth of man? We want to see Jesus.
Jesus Christ is called the Son of Man. He is the truth of man, and the personification of man. He is the best product of mankind, the prototype and the finished work. He is man who is made holy, brought into the presence of God. As we go through the world we hope to discover more of this true man. We look for intimations of him. A real man can stand through life without becoming a victim – to envy, resentment, to rage or to all the forces that stoke up his resentment and use it to manipulate him. As soon as a man lashes out – at those nearest to him, who he can hurt without consequences – he has failed to be a man. A real man is a disciplined man, which means that he must be a disciple.
At the centre of our Christmas celebration is the scene of the nativity of Jesus, the crib. Here set out in this cabinet we see Mary and Joseph, the ox and the ass, the shepherds and the kings. This scene is static, but it allows us to direct our worship in the right direction in the same way that the cross and the altar do. It directs our gaze to our true Lord, and so away from false lords, towards the truth and away from fakes and falsehood.
But we leave church and this nativity scene, where does our gaze settle? There are all the many other cabinets of figures, each presented by some institution broadcasting its identity through spectacle. In all these other cabinets the figures move, and the spectacle is live action, loud, repetitive, formulaic. We may watch these spectacles in the isolation that our screen gives us, so we are simultaneously on our own, and part of the vast crowd of spectators. We cannot hear or see this crowd, yet as long as spectacle is streamed to us, we are a member of it. We are held here, rendered supine and voiceless by this show. The point of the show is the power of those who mount it. Their power is the power to make you their audience. As long as you have this show on, you belong to their demographic. Their power comes from your reception, receptivity and susceptibility.
But if you watch the nativity scene you are watching the antidote to the shows now appearing on all other screens. The scene of these figures gathered around this manger in this stable is not too fast moving to take in or to question. It is slow enough for you to deliberate and make your judgment. In the same way, the Easter scene, in which the Lord was similarly flanked by the other figures who make up the scene (they crucified him, one on the left the other on the right), directs us gaze to the one true object and subject of our love.
Any child who watches is gazing at an altar on which a particular religious event is taking place. It looks as though he is merely watching and therefore detached from it, not taking part in it. But this show is the performance by which the powerful lure the gullible, and by catching and holding them, making them powerless. It is an event in which power flows from the watcher – the watcher is drained of the ability to act and the performer and provider of that spectacle draws to himself the power of all those he has rendered powerless. So simply by watching the viewer is inadvertently taking part. It is an event of child-maiming and stunting. It is a religious event in which they surrender their child to the forces which will prevent him from growing up. They surrender not only his childhood but his adulthood to. He enters a form of captivity which is permanent. He cannot live now without the torrent of images, which flash past him too fast to be queried, digested, challenged. He cannot live without this level of over-stimulation. It cannot be produced within any small community, but only by the whole vast financial and technical resources of the global media, the purpose of which is to dissolve all locality and create this single global economy, this single cultic form of obedience. They are stunting their own children, and ensuring that they will never be able to grow up because they received and don’t know what love is, or that human relationships are entirely about face-to-face, reciprocal relationships, in which we listen and speak to one another, in which we hear and are heard by one another. They are giving their children away to the gods, and the gods are not kind. This child-abuse is becoming child-sacrifice, worship of Moloch.
The Son of Man
Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, meaning that he is the offspring and true product of Mankind. He is the true figure and representative of Man, the best of Man, all mankind in one. He tells us that he is the first-fruits, brought to the temple, and there found good by God. There is a test, and he passes it. Summarising the Book of Hebrews, there is a trial, and though many start the course, only one has ever arrived and withstood all that has been hurled at him, which is all the aggression and accusation men have ever hurled at one another. He is the real outcome and achievement of all human striving.
The gospel we have inherited has brought us a very high account of mankind. It is good and true, and reliable and trustworthy. It is ambitious for us in a way not rivalled by another other tradition. It pins us to the hope of love and truth and freedom. It insists that we are men for one another, people in a community, bound by love, and it insists that we learn what is true, and adjust ourselves to the truth, that we develop good judgement in order to explore and its saying that we should abandon our fantasies and let reality be our judge. We should discover that creation is good, that there is a very significant role for us, and that nature is to not simply to be defied.
We are men, we already are human, but we also have to learn how to be men or how to be women. Man and woman are roles that we have to grow into. We grow into them in the same way we grow into any other set of skills; we learn and practice a set of disciplines until we have learned a certain facility, a certain capability and freedom within them. So, we are not up against nature, and not bound to struggle against everything it represents for us. Nature gives us the opportunity. Nature gives us a starting place, and without taking this starting place from nature, we cannot very well make a start on becoming either a man or a woman and so cannot become truly and fully human. In the same way, the formation and education and enculturation we received from our families and neighbours give us opportunity and a starting place.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus…
By this circumcision Jesus becomes a member of Israel. The people of Israel have been chosen to be the example of what mankind is intended to be. Israel is the model of mankind, and therefore it is also our coach and trainer. Israel is the sketch and prototype, so there are many – many false ways explored and finally abandoned. All the errors and mistakes are remembered and still visible as much as the successes. It is the people with the experience and they are therefore the teacher for whoever wants to learn and follow. Israel’s experience and history are written down in order that there be a public record of Israel’s long apprenticeship. Israel is elect to be the eldest son, the eldest of many brothers. He is to make life easier for them by showing them the way and leading them. He is their pioneer and trail-blazer.
Each of us is given an identity. It is a Christian identity. We are who we are, because our parents and families name us and call us and affirm us. for these many centuries they have done so in confidence, understanding your unique identity, because they received their identity from the gospel. We have understood that God knows us, and calls and names us, and waits for us and hears us and answers us. He has given us this name – Jesus – just so we can call him.