William Cowper’s late 18th century hymn begins memorably with the line,“Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings…” Yet that may be an understated representation of how that extraordinary evening began.
If Luke 2 were the opening act of a play, the scene would be powerful. It tells the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds to announce Jesus’s birth. The stage is dramatically silent and black. Then, an interruption—a break in the dialogue the likes of which no critic could comprehend, an opening scene that leaves audience and actors breathless.
As the play unfolds, we do not know if the shepherds were singing, but we do learn that surprise and light are present. The archangel, well aware of the human brain’s limited capacity to comprehend the mysterious and the supernatural, opens his monologue saying, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Whether you’ve actually read Luke’s words—or listened to Linus utter them to Charlie Brown and friends—the story of the shepherds and the angels and Jesus’s birth may be one of the world’s most recognized Scriptural passages. Perhaps, though, we have heard it so often we’ve grown numb to the reality of that moment.
Removed from that instance by 2,000 years of Christian tradition, today’s believer reads that story with a level of “comfort and joy” unknown to those men on that hillside so long ago. Today’s pageants too often portray the shepherds almost giddy with the excitement of what the evening has in store. One can almost hear them saying, “Well, golly, this is great! If that’s the case, then we better check this out! This is going to be fun!”
The text makes no claim that the shepherds reacted that way. They were necessarily pious men. They certainly understood prophecy and the political dynamic between the Jews and their Roman occupiers. And they knew this was something.
But they were simple men who had just become first person witnesses to the Greatest of God’s Great Interruptions. They did not ignore it, and their reaction was clear: Abject Fear. Trembling. Awe. Confusion. Silence. Wonder. Obedience. Obedience in that they stopped what they were doing, and searched for this child and his mother. Still confused. Still afraid. Still trembling.
Afterwards they returned to their flocks and carefully tended lambs destined for sacrifice, not understanding fully that they had been in the presence of God’s Lamb, born to be the ultimate Passover sacrifice. Like Mary, they pondered and reflected.
And then, finally, came Joy.
The kind of joy that understands that just because we do not see it, it does not mean God is not active. Joy that recognizes He often works in quiet ways, and only occasionally, as on that hillside, confirms His presence in miraculous ways. The story of the shepherds and the archangel is a story of how God interrupts our daily lives, sometimes violently as with multitudes of angels singing, sometimes so quietly as a baby born before a few witnesses.
“Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings…” Or dreams. Or receives that phone call in the middle of the night. Or takes communion. Or receives his first AA medallion. Or gazes at her newborn. Or weeps at the funeral or at the sentencing. Or waits nervously in the doctor’s lab. Or when he just watches sheep. It does not matter when or how the interruption occurs.
Be like the shepherds—surprised, quiet, terrified, amazed, humbled, obedient to a mysterious call. Bend a knee at the cradle. See the Child with awe and wonder. Be surprised by joy. Then return to your fields, forever altered, and spread the news. “…Yet God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice, For while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.” (William Cowper, 1779)
Merry Christmas, world.
Lawson Bader is President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The views expressed here are his own.