There’s More to this Familiar Story and Symbols

The birth narrative from the Gospel according to Luke is one which most people in our culture are at least vaguely familiar. This portion is even quoted on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The familiar story contains many of the common elementnativity 6s and symbols of the season… Angels, shepherds, an inconvenient government mandate, a journey, a manager, a baby and if we include the Gospel of Matthew as well a star, and strangers – wise men – from the east. We see depictions of this story on Christmas cards, on lawns and the symbols together or separately in malls, magazines, ads on TV, solicitation letters from charities, and on and on… These depictions in one way or another tug at our emotions. And often they speak to current concerns and issues.

In the past two years, for example, the issue of homelessness has been front and center locally. Here in the Gospel we have a young family uprooted by circumstance and government decree traveling at an inconvenient time to another town, not being able to find a place to stay and finally finding rough shelter only by the generosity of another. We don’t usually think of the holy family as poor and homeless yet these elements are present in that Gospel account.

All around us we see depictions of angels – usually with feathery wings and flowing robes. But like halos, these are devices of art in the middle ages and Renaissance used like a code or a uniform to let people know who they are. But when we look at the scriptural language the word “angellos” from which we get angel simply means a messenger… a messenger from God. I doubt these messengers looked anything like these stained glass or painted images…Yet don’t we often wish we had such a messenger to inform or to guide us? Rather than searching for these beings with wings and robes – perhaps we would be better served to focus on messages from friends, family (or even strangers) that inform or support us… They, and even you and I, can be angels. Any of us can be God’s messenger to another even if we don’t have angelic uniform or don’t belong to the angel union.

In Luke the angel brings the startling message to shepherds. Ever noticed how nice and clean the shepherds look in most modern depictions in their pressed and colorful clothing, bright shiny faces – and often portrayed as young boys and girls. In reality shepherds were very marginal in that society – they were considered, to use a 19th century phrase, ruffians and scallywags… not exactly ones you would think would be entrusted with the message of that holy birth. But to whom does God give good new – to people who need to hear good news. Especially those whose lives were hard and for whom the religious and righteous had little use… Among us here tonight are those of us who also need to hear some good news. Some are may be dealing personally or who are are support to others who face hardship, loss, illness, abuse, evil, or addiction. People for whom life is hard and for whom good news would be welcome and life changing. This Lukan nativity story is all about Good News for you, and for all God’s people.
Another prime symbol, the manger was actually a practical item, a piece of stable equipment – simply a stone food trough for animals. It was not a crib or infant carrier. It was cold and uncomfortable and even back then not a place where one would want no place a newborn. But it was there and served the purpose. In reflecting on it I wonder how often we may find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances where we can either be sullen and angry because things are not as we want them to be or we can be grateful that we have what we do have even though it is not the ideal or where we wished to be.

Stars for both the ancients and for us are a cause for wonder. Especially for us when we leave the ambient light of cities and get to a place where we can begin to see the milky way spread across the sky with countless points of lights. I often get a sense of being infinitesimally small and insignificant when looking at the seemingly boundless universe above me. Yet Matthew’s Christmas story speaks of the star as leading, as a guidance system. And we can recall pre-GPS generations of people for whom the stars were their guides on perilous journeys. The heavens helped to show the way safely home. That is one promise this Gospel gives us. That we have been given a way to follow, and assured we will return safely to the source of life from whom we and all life sprang?

Probably the infant is the most universal and sentimental symbol of Christmas. Yet the only reason we recall this story is not because of the infant but because of who this child became. (Similarly we would not know the story of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood if he had remained a rail splitter or even a rural lawyer.) We value the story of Jesus birth because of the life and teachings of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and his being the model for us of the integrity and kingdom values into which God calls us to live.

All these story elements come together to create more than a familiar sentimental story. Together they become a promise for all God’s people. The promise is summed up in “Emmanuel” – that God is with us… that God cares for us, has sent messengers and a model to show us the way.

God cannot change the circumstances of our life yet more importantly God can change us and can influence how we choose to live, and live through our circumstances and to use our life to be Good News in the lives of others.
We become the means by which Gods will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And it all began for them and for us with an angel, shepherds, manger, a star guided journey… May our journey in faith bring us peace & joy, and closer to God and to one another.

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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1 Response to There’s More to this Familiar Story and Symbols

  1. David Bos says:

    With every annual iteration of this season, the outcome is always the same. . .a profound something happened. A gift was given. We are loved. May it be seen and felt by everyone.

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