Angels & Shepherds & Kings, Oh My!
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
The Story of the Birth of Jesus from the Christian Gospel according to Luke
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Now I know some of you are wondering what this strange story from the Christian sacred text has to say to us Unitarian Universalists. After all, we are SO highly evolved intellectually, and SO educated and knowledgeable about things like ancient myths and hero stories. Most of us probably know that biblical scholars across denominational lines give no historic credence to this story whatsoever. Rather it is understood to be a tale woven from popular hero stories and myths of the ancient Middle East. The writer, who called himself “Luke,” wrote 8 – 11 decades after the crucifixion of the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He could not have ever met either of Jesus’ parents, or any close family who would have known the details of Jesus’ birth.
Many scholars also believe Jesus was more likely born in the springtime because that is when the shepherds would have been out in hills tending the sheep. Further it is now commonly understood that sometime during or after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted the entire empire during his reign in the first part of the fourth century, the celebration of the birth of Jesus was co-mingled with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia in mid-late December.
Oh, wait we have forgotten part of the story. What happened to the Wise Men, or Kings as they came later to be known? Well, Luke makes no mention of them at all. However, another Christian text called the Gospel According to Matthew does have an interesting story to tell:
The Visit of the Wise Men
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Notice that the Wise Men are visiting AFTER the birth of Jesus and the star comes to stop not over a stable but a house, and they find a child, not a babe, with his mother, drop off their gifts, and take off quickly to avoid dealing with the hostile King Herod. So the Wise Men were not at the stable in Luke’s story, and there are no angels or shepherds or Joseph or stable in Matthew’s story.
I have heard it theorized that if it had been three Wise Women instead, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts! I mean every stable needs a Diaper Genie, right?
So really, now that we have thoroughly de-mythologized the stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, what is the point of looking at them further?
Well, according to a wise Unitarian Universalist, Robert Fulghum, myth is more powerful than history. We live in a time where we are given to believe that we can know the facts about every event as it happens because everyone is recording and being recorded all the time. We distrust everyone who reports anything, and we want to see and judge for ourselves. Of course, there is never enough video to explain every detail of an incident. Cameras never catch everything, and we are still forced to see through other’s eyes and their personal slant on what they have seen.
So even if Joseph had held up his I-phone to record the Mary’s labor pains amidst the angels’ annoying racket while to trying to keep the prying eyes of visiting shepherds out of the delivery stall along with the stink of their livestock, the whole thing would still have been transformed into a magical, poetic, powerful story of the birth of a man many still believe to be a savior for the billions who suffer on the earth. The need for meaningful myth is stronger that the need to analyze facts.
Remember Professor Indiana Jones in the movie, “The Last Crusade,” telling his classroom full of besotted young students, “Archeology is the search for facts, not truth. If truth is what you’re after, the Philosophy class is right down the hall."
So back to our question: what do the Christmas stories have to say to us? If the facts do show that it’s all rainbows and unicorns, then let’s wallow in a few sentimental movies, sing a few carols, drink a boatload of eggnog, and get to the presents! Merry friggin’ Christmas! Wow! That’s almost as bad as “Bah! Humbug!”
What I’m wondering about is whether there is any truth to be found in that mythological stable? Few facts, to be sure, but what about some truth? There is historic evidence for the existence of a Jewish upstart rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth who was executed by the Roman regional government some years after the start of the Common Era. So he was born, and he had a mother and father. Those are the facts. But where is the truth?
Wishing vs hoping
One reason that I still claim Christianity as part of my person eclectic system of beliefs is that I believe the overarching message of Rabbi Jesus is one of hope. In a world where we are bombarded by the false lure of wish-fulfillment as the path to happiness, I continue to be deeply moved by the message of genuine hope for a better tomorrow.
Rabbi Jesus apparently spent the bulk of the last few years of his life as a homeless man wandering the countryside with a motley variety of mostly marginalized persons who were encouraged and energized by his stories and lessons about the power of genuine love to overcome the worst losses, injustices, and mistakes of human existence. Many came to him seeking easy wish-fulfillment and some left disappointed. Wishing and hoping are very different things.
I strongly dislike the game that goes something like this: “If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?” This a question for children in fairy stories, for lamp-polishers looking for genies. In other words, if all historical consequences and the laws of physics could be suspended just for you, what would fulfill your deepest desire?
Think about it for a minute. What’s on your list of fondest wishes? Would you ask for lots of money? Would you ask to be thinner or taller or prettier or younger or smarter? Dig a little deeper. Would you ask for a miraculous cure for yourself or a sick loved one? Would you ask for someone to come back from the grave? I am not the only parent of a special-needs child in this church community. What do you think our wishes would be for our precious children?
Wishing leads nowhere! It is fruitless, frustrating and it leads to grief and misery. Throwing coins into fountains and blowing out birthday candles are for small children. At some point, this becomes superstition, right? This is what sells good luck charms and lottery tickets! I am not interested in wishing for the things I want. If there is a deity of some kind paying any attention to us humans, that deity is not in the business of magical wish-fulfillment. If that were true, the world would be very different.
Now hope is a different matter! I am all about hope and when I read about angels and shepherds and kings (oh My!) I am filled with hope. Let me tell you why. The message of Rabbi Jesus was one of hope for the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts and the outsiders. It was a revolutionary message and sadly, because it became entangled with institution and power, it was watered down and twisted into something else, and we’ve all been burned by that warped version of the message. But the writers of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels included the mythological stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood as a means of setting the stage for that radical message of liberation for the poor, the exploited, the abused. They had to connect Jesus to the prophecies people had heard about the Messiah to come. It was an ancient version of promotion, of “spin.”
It made sense to Luke to portray Jesus as an infant born in homeless poverty. It was an appropriate beginning for Matthew’s gospel to show Jesus as a small child honored by three wise men and feared by King Herod. Where should the King of Kings be born? The king who has come to turn the rules of the world upside down can only be born in the humblest of circumstances. The anointed chosen of God portrayed as a helpless infant in a humble manger demonstrates God’s presence in the lowest of places. In opposition to the popular theology of the world then, and still now I think, that wealth and power are signs of God’s favor, the Infant Narratives present a savior who is one of the human multitudes, living alongside the meek, the down-trodden, the ostracized, the untouchable.
Now I know many of you do not pay close attention to Christianity in your daily lives or your spiritual practice. But I believe we can all benefit from the reminder that we are called to compassion, and to work for justice on the behalf of those who live life on the margins. The Buddha is purported to have rejected a life of wealth to live humbly and find a way to help people out of suffering. The Prophet of Islam instructed his followers to care for the poor at every opportunity. The Christmas message is everyone’s hope. Compassion is the way, and justice for the marginalized is the call to all of us.
The angels, shepherds and kings are narrative devices designed to capture our attention and point us in the direction of this message from the radical rabbi. The birth narratives are not about facts. They are stories designed to inspire us to find out more about this strange rabbi, and then to incorporate the message of radical loving kindness into our lives.
As an adolescent, my mother announced at the dinner table that Jesus wasn’t a Christian and my outraged grandfather sent her to her room. But it’s true. If you are not a Christian, you are in good company! Neither was Rabbi Jesus.
I encourage you not to throw the baby out with the manger. Let the songs of the angels ring in your ears just a little. Let the gasps of the shepherds’ awe capture your attention. Let the amazement of the Wise Men fascinate you just a bit.
Liberation for the captive, food for the hungry, care for sick, peace from violence, hope for the despairing: this is the truth of Christmas. Don’t waste your time looking for facts. The truth within the myth offers a powerful hope, and that’s a pretty good Christmas present for all of us!