The angels have been and gone. They had been singing and dancing in the skies, praising God, rejoicing in the birth of God’s own son in a stable in Bethlehem.
Were the shepherds the only ones to notice? Was everyone else tucked into their beds asleep? Maybe someone woke up and thought the town drunks are at it again, and snuggled down deeper into the blankets. And maybe one of the drunks did hear and see the shenanigans, but put it down to too much ale. Perhaps there was someone still outside who saw and heard, but thought something really weird and evil was going on, so they said a private prayer to ward off such devilish doings.
When something happens, people respond in different ways. You have to make sense of what is happening, and then you have to do something. We see this every time there is a major incident, and you get the stories of people who responded bravely, the people who helped themselves and others to get to a safe place. We tend not to hear the stories of people who respond out of fear, but there are always some of them as well – very understandably.
And it wasn’t as if the world’s press was turning up on the doorstep to record people’s stories of the night the angels came. All we have is the shepherd’s story.
The shepherds were amazed at seeing the angels and hearing their message. And the first thing the shepherds do is to want to check out what they have been told. They act on their amazement. The angels had told them about a baby born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger. So they set off to see the truth of it, and sure enough, they find the family, just as the angels said. That is the sign for them that everything the angels had told them was true, that this baby is the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. This is the sign that God is doing a new thing, and if all the angels of heaven are rejoicing, then something really wonderful is happening. They accepted the truth of what the angels had said, the whole truth of it.
Then the shepherds respond in worship – they glorify and praise God. I rather suspect the shepherds hadn’t done that in a while. When they praise God, they let God’s joy into their hearts, and that changes them from the inside. When they praise God, they take part in God’s glory.
Of course, the shepherds weren’t the only ones there. Mary herself is trying to make sense of it all. Little more than a child herself, she has just given birth to a baby. She has her new husband and probably the women of his family and the village midwife, but her own mother and aunts are far away, the people she has always relied on. She has barely had time to rest when a bunch of smelly shepherds turn up from the fields wanting to see the little fella in the manger, all excited because they have seen angels in the sky telling them to come by and visit the new baby. They have such a story to tell!
And Mary listens, hanging on to every word. She maybe asks them to tell the story again. Joseph maybe asks questions for clarification. Mary remembers it all, committing every word to her heart. She treasures the story she hears, because it helps her to understand that her baby really is special, that her own weird experience with the angel was real. She goes on pondering for the rest of her life. She puts things together, from whatever she heard when the scriptures were read, from what people said to her about the baby, from what the stories her people told her about their own experience.
I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day and read a portion of Old and New Testament twice a day, and it’s amazing how many times I can see my own life and the life of the church and the community reflected in what I am reading, so that scripture shines a light on life and life illustrates the Word of God. And when I am reflecting on a particular theme, I find ideas and images coming from different directions – a newspaper article, something someone says on twitter or facebook, a verse from a psalm, and they all help to make the matter more clear, more visible, and make more sense.
That way of reflecting on scripture is helpful for everyone. It’s like chewing a delicious mouthful and paying attention to it, so you appreciate the flavour and the texture and joy it brings you. It can be a really good practice to look up the Sunday readings during the week and just hear them again in your mind and make the connections with what is going on in your life and let God speak to you.
Today’s Gospel invites us to take the stories of the birth of Jesus into our heart and mind and soul, to give them a place where we can go on looking at them and finding new pieces of the jigsaw that enlarge the picture and make it clearer.
As you have heard the stories this Christmas, how have you responded? Remember the times when you have pondered on the truth of the story, or wondered what it might have been like to have been there. Remember the joy in your heart when you have responded in praise and worship. Give thanks to God that you have an open door to the birth of the Son of God, that he came because of just how much you matter to God.