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The visitors get centre stage

2015-12-21 11:42

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One of the peculiar things about the two Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth is that the account of the birth doesn’t take up much space in the narrative.  The birth is narrated in a half-line by Matthew: “she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:25)   Luke is fulsome by comparison, having two sentences: “While they were there, the time came for her to have a child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7) There is no detail of this dramatic birth, no reaction noted from Mary or Joseph, no voices – not even a cry – from the three main characters. Like the death of Jesus, the story of his birth is told through the eyes of the observers, those who come from near or far to witness the event.

The two Gospel narratives shift the spotlight away from the birth to focus attention on those who look on the event – not the immediate family, interestingly, but outsiders.  We are invited to see the events through the eyes of two different groups, the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel and the wise men in Matthew’s.  For the evangelists it is these witnesses who appear large; it is they who take centre stage and respond to what they see and hear.

The shepherds are Bethlehem locals, poor people, who are watching their flocks by night. You might think that these star-gazers would be the ones to clock a new star as it lit up the night sky; instead they are graced with an angelic annunciation, surrounded by the glory of God, and treated to a bravura performance of five-part angelic choirs singing the Gloria! 

The wise men, by contrast, are foreign celebrities, people of substance, who gain ready access to the palace of King Herod and can converse with majesty and his counsellors.  The magi come from the mysterious East, which long before Christianity had been the birth of many religions.  These wise men follow a new star in the sky; for all their exotic importance, there are no angelic choirs for them. They are excited about what is new and fresh and unexplained.  They follow the star.  Eventually they reach their destination in a child, offer their unconventional gifts, and kneel down and worship.

If the clever magi are to be admired, the poor shepherds are not to be despised.  They are the first group to whom the Gospel is announced; they are the first to respond graciously.  The magi who had access to the palace of a king have to eventually flee from a despot: they become unwilling fugitives.  Their way led them through the palace of a king to the newborn child, but they cannot return by the same route.  The shepherds can go back to their fields; they are a threat to nobody. No one will be seeking their counsel.

Two different groups. Which group do we feel more comfortable with?  Are we more at ease with the clever wise men, in their embroidered silken robes, who can read the stars and can afford to travel through countries to follow their dream?  Or are we happier in the company of the shepherds, first terrified and then delighted, who leave their posts and follow the angel’s instructions, to pay their respects to this newborn child? Whichever group we feel more at home with, we today are the witnesses, the watchers, who will always outnumber the principal characters in the drama.  This Christmas we turn up, but we do more than watch. Empty-handed or not, we come to worship this little one.  

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