I have a confession to make. It’s an odd little quirk even my family thinks is strange. I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas. There, I said it. Laid it out right there in front of God and everybody. Like a twelve-step group or something. I’d say I was in recovery, but I’m not. I love it. Weird, I know. To say that you enjoy shopping on a day where you spend more time creeping through lanes and searching for parking spots than actually shopping; to claim some satisfaction when standing in long lines of people most of whom ran out of Christmas spirit a few stores ago, and the clean up on aisle nine is a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions; when the checkout clerks flinch when you clear your throat because they have been yelled at and complained to and snubbed in disgust so many times, they are wary of the slightest sign of displeasure; who in their right mind would venture out on such an expedition?
Well, you got me there, that right mind thing. Never promised that. Still, I find some joy in the adventure. Call it a search for . . . well, a search. For the last-minute gifts that I’m always trying to secure; there is that, of course. But that’s not it completely. There is something else that sends me out, even in a driving rain, to observe, to catch a glimpse. Something out there, bigger than just me and my wants and dreams, my hurts and my needs. Something beyond the pettiness of the politics of division. Something beyond the frustrations of family over-familiarity and frayed fellowship. And something beyond the ravages of consumerism and the confused notion that spiritual hungers can be satisfied with material goods.
That’s what folks have told me over the years when I share this odd quirk with them. “It is materialism on overdrive, don’t you know?” they tell me. “It is the worst of us in the season that should bring out the best in us. It is the opposite of what Christmas is all about.” And they are right, these voices that I hear. I can’t really argue with them. Yet . . . I go, and watch, and listen, and enter in the melee, the scrum, the . . . hopes and fears of all the years.
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” And while the scene I witness out and about just before Christmas is the exact opposite of the opening verse, it still seemed to speak to me about what I was wandering through.
O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.
The stillness was replaced by the flurry of activity both motorized and pedestrian. Instead of silent stars, there were the long lines of headlights and taillights piercing the gloom and gray, snow that was more drizzle than flakes, but the streets were “shineth-ing” something fierce. But was that everlasting light there? That’s what I went to see; that’s what I hope to find. Hopes and fears aplenty met in the latest gadget, in the thing of beauty that just might somehow convey to friend or family member something of what they mean to us.
Something to search for, something to name. That’s what we hope for at Christmas, something we can name, something we can claim as real, as ours, something that puts all the pieces of our lives together. That’s what we’re looking for, even when we don’t always know it. Even when it catches us by surprise and, frankly, scares us a little bit. Or a lot.
I guess what I’m saying is that I feel a little bit like the shepherds, keeping watch. I know, we are used to thinking that they were lazy, relaxing in the fields, dozing and drinking, time on their hands. We aren’t the first to think that of them. That’s why they were considered unclean. They were rough characters, kept from proper worship and proper interactions with the “good people.” When Luke tells us that the people were “amazed at what the shepherds had told them,” we rightly think about the wonder of the story itself. But the added ingredient to their amazement was the source of the story. It was the shepherds who told this story. The shepherds who, according to them anyway, got a voicemail from God. No, a direct message, better than a telegram, a visitation. A manifestation. An angel, a whole host of them, singing and dancing in the heavens, about a baby in a manager. Uh-huh. Just what did they keep in those leather flasks all night long anyway?
I’m sure that is what went through the minds of at least some of those hearing this tale. These are shepherds after all. But what if we’ve been a bit unfair to the shepherds? I read a commentator some years ago who said that we ought to see the shepherds as small business owners. They were hardly the only occupation who had to deal with ritual uncleanness; those rules were almost impossible to keep. Certainly, there were some in the business who were disreputable characters, but what business doesn’t have its share of disrepute?
Maybe the issue was that the shepherds were busy. Luke doesn’t say they were lazing about in the field. He says they were keeping watch. It was an important job. Someone even speculated once that perhaps this was not an ordinary, run of the mill flock of sheep. That maybe this was a group of the Temple lambs, ones raised spotless, unblemished, so that they would be worthy of that sacrifice. It seemed likely that in Luke’s mind at least, this was symbolic, that the announcement of the child born to be the perfect sacrifice would be announced with full angelic accompaniment to those who were keeping watch over the sacrificial lambs. Keep watch, says the child grown into a man, for you do not know when the day will come. Maybe he remembered the story as he said that. The story his mom told when he was little and would sit and soak up every word she said. The story about that night after a long trip to Bethlehem. The night when the stars seemed brighter than they do today. The night when a manger was the only refuge from the dark and the cold.
The night when they came, the shepherds, bringing with them the smells of the animals in their care. And how they told anyone and everyone who would listen what had happened to them. How they were keeping watch, doing their job, worrying about the predators and the hazards out there in the darkness. Worrying about how they were going to get the sick ones to eat and the angry ones to live in peace. Worrying about the fluctuations in the price of temple lambs, how they used to make a good living but now were just getting by. Worrying about how long it was going to be until their next day off, when they could go and see their families, and wash the smell of sheep off of them for a little while at least. When they could pretend to be just like everyone else.
And then the sky exploded. They thought their hearts would stop beating in their chests. They thought it was the end of the world. They thought they would never hold their little babies, or kiss their wives, or laugh with family ever again. They thought all their mistakes were coming back to trip them up, all their failings, all their doubts and brokenness, they thought what the villagers thought of them was going to be their legacy. They thought they were doomed to disappear into the dark like all the others they tell ghost stories about around the fire in the middle of the night, when they are trying to keep one another awake because the wolves are prowling.
As quickly as all these thoughts raced through their minds, came another, fast on its heels: Fear not. The voice spoke in their heads without having to go through their ears somehow. Good news. They heard or felt, or just somehow knew. To you is born a savior. “To you, us?” they thought. Surely not, maybe the “good” people in town. “Maybe the priests and leaders, the rich and powerful,” they thought. A sign to you, a babe wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. Now mangers, they understood. Mangers were their business, their language. Mangers and saviors seemed to make some odd kind of sense to shepherds.
Then the song began, and what a glorious one it was. It brought tears to the eyes of these rough and burly men used to the hazards of the wilderness. It made their hearts light, their minds rest, their hopes soar. It was glorious. When it ended, they didn’t dare breathe for a long moment. When they did, they looked at one another, hoping they weren’t the only ones to hear this message. But they could tell by the look on each face that it was real, and it was theirs.” Let us make haste,” they said. They made room in their busy schedule; they made their way, breathless and hopeful; like Moses and the bush, they turned aside to see.
What are you keeping watch over? I wonder. Maybe we’re looking for something that will define us, something that will remake us, transform us. Some relationship, some hope, some love that will make us new.
O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel
What I go out to see in the muddle of our world is not necessarily the Christ child, or the light that glows within. No, I think what I’m going to find is the world that he came to save. The masses of humanity who think they can find salvation in the stuff of this life, like I know I do sometimes. When I forget. A world that has room for a Savior, even when we’ve forgotten it. And part of what I’m keeping watch for is to see whether we can make room. Room for grace, room for joy, room for peace, even at our worst. At our most needy. And most helpful, and grace filled. Keep watch.