When I began considering these readings, the part that struck me most was the first appearance of the angel, and the shepherds’ reaction: “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”1 For a moment, I found it a strange response, but on reflection, I don’t think it is.
Great events aren’t comfortable. Whatever message the angel brings, it’s going to upset the applecart. I think the past year has shown us plenty of times just how much more complicated things can get when big changes are afoot. To pick out just one example, the recent economic crisis is an event with incalculable repercussions, such that each of us has to wonder about our future, even if we haven’t been directly affected yet. That’s just an ordinary, worldly event, though; if the news is so extraordinary as to merit an angel as a messenger, it’s likely to be all the more traumatic. My instinctive reaction would probably be, “Oh Lord, what now? Haven’t I enough troubles? Do we have to do the end of the world today? Can we do the, um, 14th of January? I can meet for an hour at ten o’clock, if that’s good for you.”
The angel of the Lord understands, and is quick to reassure us, saying, “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,”2 and gives them news of Jesus’ birth. The heavenly host sings, “on earth peace among those whom [the Lord] favors,”3 and we go on with the shepherds to find Jesus the Messiah with Mary and Joseph.
On closer examination, though, I notice that the angel never said that the world wasn’t ending. Christ’s life and message are traumatic, but not in the way that anyone expected. The transformation of the world and the conversion of our hearts don’t begin in a palace or in a revolutionary headquarters, but in a stable. There is to be no great uprising, no violent overthrow of the old order, but instead, a change which grows like a tree, whose roots slowly break through even the hardest stone. Isaiah prophesizes about the world the angel heralds and Jesus brings: “There shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom, [and] he will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness.”4 It’s a vision which inspires joy: who doesn’t yearn for that perfect, eternal peace?
All that’s left is getting from here to there, from this world to that one. We’ve been at it for over two thousand years, so obviously it’s a little harder than it sounds! Paul drops a couple of hints in his letter to Titus, telling him—and us—“to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”5 This sounds a little cold, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be celebrating and feasting, and the church has chosen this austere admonition for our ears tonight; what gives?
The distinction, I think, lies in the word “worldly.” We can’t have it both ways: either we rejoice in what God offers us, or in the world as we, fallen from grace, have made it. Paul warns us that to do the second is at its heart, false joy: didn’t we lament about the troubles of this world not five minutes ago? To rejoice in it is to either embrace the world as it is or ignore it, seeking abandon in the consolations of pleasure. On the other hand, if we look towards the vision of God’s new heaven and new earth, we can have true joy in our hearts, which is what Paul wants for us. The beauty of that vision surpasses mere physical things, and engages us entirely. Put that way, our self-control and renouncing of worldly passions is a matter of not abandoning our will, and our uprightness and piety are a matter of integrity: we direct our whole selves towards God.
How do we reconcile that joy with the struggles we live with day-to-day? Father Luc Tardif said something a week and a half ago which gave me a pretty good clue, so I’ll paraphrase him: joy in God’s world is hope in this one. We don’t ignore our own shortcomings or those of the world that surrounds us, but we work to restore ourselves and it to the state that God plans for us, fed by the sure hope that God gives us through Jesus and the many holy people who preceded and follow him. Even at the worst of times—and for some, I know, these come close—God gives us reason to hope, and to have joy. Like Jesus’ at Calvary, our troubles and suffering are temporary; as shown by the Resurrection, God’s grace is eternal and, with our participation, overcomes even the greatest ills.
In this context, our outward feasting and rejoicing this Christmas can be a sign of an inward, spiritual joy, not a seeking of empty pleasure or oblivion. Our whole being, not just our body, is engaged in rejoicing. We do this not only as individuals, but as communities: families, parishes, and the whole world, because we who walk together in darkness see a great light.6 Though it is yet some ways off, we see, we believe, we hope, and we work to draw near to it. The birth of the Christ, the one who is called Prince of Peace, is a dawning of hope; celebrate it joyfully, confident in the redeeming power of God’s all-encompassing love.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Thanks go to commodorified for her useful editorial advice!
1: Luke 2:9
2: Luke 2:10
3: Luke 2:14
4: Isaiah 2:7
5: Titus 2:12
6: Isaiah 9:2