In the last of our three reflections on the songs of the nativity we come to the main event, the birth itself, and the shepherds, abiding in the fields, minding their own business until heaven bursts into their lives and the angels’ song chases away any chance of sleep.
These shepherds are interesting characters and their significance has been interpreted in all sorts of different ways. Some commentators have seen in them echoes of the shepherd images in the Old Testament; of King David the shepherd boy who becomes a king, and God himself, the shepherd who leads us beside still waters and feed us in green pastures. But the truth is that shepherds at the time of Christ were often regarded as very disreputable. They seem to have had a reputation for dishonesty too, often accused of grazing their flocks on other people’s land. So maybe these shepherds are meant to foreshadow all the other sinners and outcasts whom Christ welcomed and honoured.
There is a third possibility too. These are, specifically, shepherds living just outside Bethlehem, which is just a few miles from Jerusalem. In ancient times this seems to have been where the lambs were raised that were used as sacrifices in the Temple. These lambs had to be perfect, without any blemish if they were to be acceptable. Maybe Luke is reminding us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice that ended the need for sacrifice? It’s all speculation – Luke doesn’t spell it out and we probably miss things that would have been obvious to those he was writing for. But whoever they are it is clear that the shepherds aren’t the kind of people who would have expected to be first in line to hear about a royal birth. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to them. Except that now it has.
A multitude of angels appear in the sky, praising God and singing the song which forms the beginning of the canticle we sing every Sunday at communion, the Gloria. “Glory to God in the highest heaven. and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”, or, as we know it, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” The Greek can be translated in a number of ways, but the key to it all is the first word, Glory. This is a song that acclaims the Glory of God, the glory that is now spilling out onto the shepherds.
Glory was a very significant word in both the Old and New Testaments. Luke uses the Greek word -“doxa” – but it is the direct equivalents of the Hebrew word “Kabod” (pronounced “kavothe”). Kabod wasn’t just a metaphor or an abstract noun to the people of the Bible. The Glory of God was an actual thing, a distinct phenomenon. The root from which it is derives means heavy or substantial. Although it is often described in terms of shining light, there was nothing ethereal about it. It was a weighty thing, full and abundant, but often terrifying as well. Moses encountered the glory of God on Mount Sinai and “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire,” we are told. (Exodus 24.17) And when he came down the mountain, his own face shone with glory so brightly that he had to wear a veil to stop it dazzling people.
It was the visible sign of God’s presence. Ezekiel the prophet described seeing the glory of the Lord leaving the Temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it. It wheeled up into the sky and over the mountains that surrounded the city until it was gone from sight. It was a powerful symbol of his despair for his nation. But he also had a vision of it returning just as it had gone. One day the Temple would be restored.
But now this kabod, this glory, is spilling out of heaven and landing where? In the midst of a bunch of shepherds. It isn’t shining in the Temple. It isn’t shining on some High Priest or king. It is shining on some anonymous, poor, ordinary shepherds. And it is directing them to a manger, not a palace, and to the son of a couple around whom there was at least a whiff of scandal – a child born too soon after their wedding to be strictly respectable. This is where God’s glory is now coming to rest. This is where God’s presence is. Who would have thought it?
“Peace among those who he favours” sing the angels, which sounds like a rather barbed comment. It’s fine if you are one of the favoured ones, but what if you aren’t? But the good news of the angels’ message is that in this child God’s favour rests on anyone who is open to it. Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women, the respectable and the outcast, the rich and the poor.
As Paul reminds the Colossians we can look into ourselves and into each other and see “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. We don’t have to go up Mount Sinai. We don’t have to look in the Temple. We don’t have to wait for some religious expert to dispense it to us. God has come to live in each of us, and in those around us, in all his glory. In the silence tonight, let’s ask ourselves whether we really believe that – about ourselves, about others. If the answer is no, or not as much as we should do, let’s ask ourselves what difference it would make if we really did.