We feel it, right? The feeling of wonder “in the air”. (Of course, also in the air is that agitated feeling of too much to do and too little time to do it. Still, the music, the lights, the gifts, the goodwill make it a unique time of year. One, as some Christmas songs say, we wish could last year round
What fuels this feeling? Something more than music, lights, gifts and goodwill. I believe it’s this: the heart of Luke’s Christmas Story. That’s what makes us all feel like kids again in the magical land of Narnia.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town (Luke 2:1-3).
As he’s done before (Luke 1:1-4), Luke grounds his full-of-wonder story in eyewitness history. The birth (the heart of the story) happened at the time the Roman Caesar Augustus issued a census decree (for taxes, what else?). Everyone had to return to his ancestral town to register.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child (Luke 2:4,5).
It’s about a three-day walking journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Mary accompanied Joseph because she was pledged to be married to him. And Mary was expecting a child.
Luke thus shows us a couple “under the thumb” of the Roman emperor, making an arduous journey much like we see refugees or immigrants making today.
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:6,7).
Little wonder so far, no? The census-decree is just more government-speak. The journey to Bethlehem, though movies make much of it, Luke doesn’t. Here’s just another poor couple dominated by a dictator forced to comply. This scene climaxes most Christian Christmas movies. Luke tells it like a just-the-facts reporter.
What he’s showing us, of course, is the humble poverty of the parents. Mary laid her firstborn in an animal feeding trough, because Bethlehem’s inn had no room for them. That’s what poor people, trapped in a crisis, do: they do what they can with what they have.
But the mood of the story is about to change . . .
And in the same 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, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto 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 baby 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 those 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” (Luke 2:8-15).
Shepherds happen to be nearby watching over their flock through the night. This is where the story becomes Narnia-like, where wonder breaks out. The Lord’s angel suddenly appears to them. And the Lord’s glory shone in the night surrounding them. These simple working men, unesteemed among their fellow Jews, were shocked afraid. Never had they seen such a sight.
The angel tries to calm their fear. He brings “good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.
He’s making a birth announcement. This very day in nearby Bethlehem, a Savior has been born. He is Messiah the Lord. Jewish shepherds must have been electrified. Messiah! He will save us from all oppression! He will rule over us and bring us peace! Can it be true?
The angel expects them to see the child for themselves. So he gives them a sign by which to identify him—swaddling cloth-wrapped with a feed trough for a bed. That will be him!
Suddenly a great heavenly choir appears praising God. Whether their words are spoken or sung they must move the shepherds’ souls: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
After the choir disappears and the shepherds can breathe again, they decide to go over to Bethlehem “and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Jewish shepherds. What do they know? Maybe it was mass hallucination. Or maybe, just maybe, it was real . . .
And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up 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 2:16-20).
The excited shepherds hurry their search. When they find him, they tell the parents what the angels had said. And apparently afterward they told whomever would listen. “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” The Greek word translated “wondered” is thaumazo. It means whomever the shepherds told marveled; they were astonished at what they heard. Finally, the shepherds get back to their sheep. There, when all that has happened “sinks in”, they glorify and praise God.
Now what about this Narnia-like, full-of-wonder feeling that envelops us at Christmas? Does it arise from the music, the lights, the gifts, the goodwill? In part. But the spring of it all (I believe)) is this story.
Sure, most don’t believe it really happened. Many vaguely do, but they don’t believe it has anything to do with their lives in the “real” world now. But remember, the angel said this news is “of great joy that will be for all the people”. Maybe only a few believe it. Only a few understand it. But this story hangs in the air at Christmas. Consciously or not, we all breathe it in. It makes us wish, even subconsciously, that it were true. It makes us long for a Savior, a Messiah, who will free the oppressed and usher in lasting peace. It makes us want to believe in the unbelievable. That’s the atmosphere of Christmas.
Please, let’s not be too calloused to believe it. Let’s dare to be like children! What’s “in the air” is true! Read the rest of the Gospel to learn the whole story!