Christmas Eve Meditation 2021, Colchester Federated Church (Luke 2:1-20)

On Christmas Eve we hear the ancient story, and seek within the old words—new meanings.  Like Mary treasuring the words of the shepherds and angels in her heart, Christians gather to hear one of the most important stories of our faith.  We already know what happens.  But it’s good to remember and give thanks in community.

We remember that the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a census, and everybody had to travel to their ancestral hometowns to be registered.  For Joseph, that meant that he had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  That trip is around 80 miles.  For us that would be like traveling from Colchester to Danbury on foot.  Can you imagine?  Not to mention that Joseph took his very pregnant fiancé Mary with him.  That journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken several days as they traveled over high hills and through the desert wilderness.  When they arrived at the crowded town, tired and weary from the long journey, the time came for Mary to give birth.  Luke tells us that Mary “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.”[1] 

We tend to gloss over the humility of the scene because we’ve heard this story so many times.  Though Jesus was born in difficult circumstances.  Mary did not give birth to her child in her own home.  Her family was not there beside her to help her through childbirth.  Luke tells us that Jesus was laid in a manger, and a manger was a feedbox for animals.  Hence all of the Christmas scenes that depict the holy family among sheep and cows, goats and donkeys, and eventually camels with the arrival of the magi. 

This year, our Colchester Federated Church Christmas Pageant was based on the song “The Friendly Beasts.”  That song depicts the donkey as carrying Mary and Jesus safely to Bethlehem.  The cows gave up their manger for a bed.  The sheep gave wool for a blanket to keep Jesus warm.  Doves cooed Jesus to sleep so he wouldn’t cry.  The camels brought Jesus gifts in the magi’s packs.  And all of the friendly beasts were proud to tell of the gifts that they gave to Emmanuel. 

Now this is just a Christmas song that imagines animals present for the birth of Jesus.  Though it does beautifully capture the humility of the scene.  One newer translation of the Bible: The First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament—helps set the scene clearly by stating, “The time for Bitter Tears (Mary) to have her child was upon her!  But no place could be found in the lodging house, so He Gives Sons (Joseph) found a sheep cave where it was warm and dry.  They wrapped him in a soft, warm blanket and laid him on a baby board.  Then they placed him on a bed of straw in a feeding trough.”[2]

What’s amazing about this Indigenous translation of Luke’s Gospel is that this is exactly what I learned when visiting Bethlehem—that it was likely that Jesus was born in a cave.  Our guide Elias took us to the Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour on the outskirts of Bethlehem, which would have been located on the edge of the Judean wilderness in Jesus’ time.  We learned that shepherds kept their flocks of sheep in caves for protection and stood guard outside the entrance.  A better translation of the Christmas story (according to Elias) was that there was no place for the holy family in the “Upper Room.”  So Mary gave birth to her son in the deepest part of a cave where animals would have been sheltering.  It’s not as if ancient peoples had barns constructed of wood as we see now in more country settings like Colchester after all.

The fact that Mary gave birth to Jesus most likely in a sheep cave (where it was relatively safe, warm, and dry) and placed her infant child on a borrowed bed of straw because there was no room for the family in the lodging house should not be lost on us.  This is how Jesus the Christ (God-with-us) came into our world—in a sheep cave with friendly beasts nearby.  To say that the circumstances were less than ideal is inadequate to describe what happened.  After the tiresome 80-mile journey, to show up to a crowded town where there was no room in the lodging house and seek shelter in a sheep cave where Mary would give birth to Jesus—we would be hard pressed to set a more modest scene.

When the scene changes in our Christmas story, we find the shepherds living in their fields keeping watch over their flock by night.  Luke tells us that these shepherds were living in the fields.  Homiletics Professor O. Wesley Allen Jr. reminds us that “these shepherds are not necessarily the landowners who own the flock and the fields—those persons are asleep in the comfort of their homes.  The shepherds in the text are more likely the night-shift slaves or low-paid wage earners who protect the flock at night.”[3]  In our Christmas story, the angels don’t appear to the high and mighty any more than Jesus is born in luxurious comfort.  No, the message of the birth of the Messiah is announced to modest folks who are doing their best to protect the sheep entrusted to their care.  All of whom make room for a weary family in need of shelter. 

Jesus is born in humble circumstances.  His birth is announced to “lowly” people.  This is indeed “good news of great joy for all the people” including you and me.[4]

In the end, to say that we are living in less-than-ideal circumstances is not an exaggeration.  It is good to be here together worshiping in person this Christmas Eve.  Though we know that the elusive “return to normalcy” is just that—elusive.  We can’t know what the future holds as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic, but we know who holds the future.  So let us take heart this night that God is with us, even and especially in these chaotic days.  God came to us in the person of Jesus, to share our common lot.  It ends up that God can use less-than-ideal circumstances (like there being no room in the inn) to break forth into our world with mercy and grace beyond our ability to comprehend.  May we feel a thrill of hope this Christmas Eve and recognize that the continual rebirth of Christ in the human heart can always give our weary world a reason to rejoice.  Thanks be to God and Merry Christmas.  Amen.

[1] Luke 2:7, NRSV.
[2] Luke 2:6-7, First Nations Version.
[3] O Wesley Allen Jr., Commentary on Luke 2:8-20, Working Preacher, December 25, 2016,
[4] Luke 2:10, NRSV.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.