For our Shepherds in the St Luke’s Gospel account of that first Christmas Eve it started as just an ordinary night watching over their flock of sheep. They had no inclination of the disturbance to their lives that was about to happen and the ‘news of great joy’ they were about to be part of.
The company that could manufacture ‘joy’and market it in person-sized packages, would sweep the board. Many have tried, and many have failed. At this time of year especially, everyone is searching for the magic ingredient that will make this day joyful. during the past few weeks, or even months, we have been inundated by all the permutations on offer. It’s very hard to escape the conclusion that if we spend enough money, consume enough food and drink and arrange for the right combination of people to share our Christmas table, all will be well.
Yet, to our cost, we know that it is not always so. Christmas sees the highest prevalence of suicide in the year. Many, many people simply dread the approach of the festive season, and even those who do have family and friends with whom to share the festivities sometimes find on Boxing Day, that they are tense and exhausted and feel that they simply ‘tried too hard’ and are relieved that ‘it is all over for another year’.
Yet this is the day, above all, when God gives joy to the world. What was it that the shepherds understood, but that eludes us today? What are we missing? We, who try so very hard, and with genuine good will, to make Christmas a special day, all too often miss out on the joy it is supposed to bring. The shepherds were not trying at all. For them it was just another night on the hillside, getting on with their routine work. The whole thing took them completely by surprise.
It begins with a surprise visit. The last thing the shepherds were expecting on a cold night out on the hillside was a visit from the heavenly hosts. Surprise visits are a mixed blessing at the best of times, and especially at Christmas. They are so much a part of what Christmas is about, and, with our lips at least, we welcome them. ‘Why don’t you drop round for a drink?’ we invite the neighbours genially, but secretly hope they will come at the ‘right’ time, and not outstay their welcome. The angels didn’t wait to be invited. The news they had was so momentous that there was no way it could wait until the invitation cards had been printed. And it called forth a response in the shepherds that went a good deal further than a mince pie and a cup of tea. Perhaps because they were themselves at the bottom of the social heap, with no image to defend, they seem to have been amazingly open to the angels’s message, once they had overcome the initial shock – so open that they immediately set off to make a surprise visit themselves to the little family in Bethlehem.
We can only image the reaction of Mary and Joseph to the sudden arrival of these unexpected guests. No chance to clean up the stable or bake a cake. ‘You’ll have to take us as you find us’ we sometimes warn our would be guests, which, for me at least, is usually an excuse for being too lazy to clean the house up. God says the same, but from a higher motive. ‘Come and look for me, and then be prepared to take me as you find me.’ Where will we find God this Christmas? Certainly in the hospitality of our friends. But perhaps more visibly and powerfully, in the faces of those who have no home, no friends, no resources behind which to hide their extreme vulnerability. A surprise visit to such a person would perhaps surprise us with the warmth it would generate.
The vulnerable baby who is God’s own self has countless siblings. Some of them live in your road or street. You will recognise them because they are a gift that comes unwrapped, with the eyes of need looking straight into your own-a single parent, a bewildered migrant, a lonely pensioner. Why not plan to surprise one of them with a touch of God’s love this Christmas season. You might be surprised at the result.
Surprises are the very essence of Christmas morning. All those gifts we have carefully concealed are unwrapped. Those with children will be bombarded today with demands to ‘Look’ and to join in with the new games, admire the new doll, share in the joy. Surprises are for sharing. The bigger the surprise, the less it can be contained. And all our unwrapping and our sharing is just a faint reflection of God’s own great act of unwrapping himself, to reveal a helpless baby in the arms of two inexperienced parents. It was the mother and father of all surprises. No wonder the shepherds ran off to tell everyone they met about the happenings of an ‘ordinary’ night.