We are those people the angel spoke of: the people who long for good news, who need good news to come to all people. If we’ve learned anything this last year, it’s how helplessly related we are to all people — how other lives have consequence in our own. Always have, always will.
If only the angels would come again to light our way. If only some heavenly illumination would renew our way of looking at each other — at all people — every hour of every day. But the angels never stay, do they? They always vanish into heaven and leave us in the dark.
It’s what happened to Mary: the angel came and left her. And it’s what happened to the shepherds, too: the angel left them as well. They must have been amazed, though, by the angel’s sudden appearance: must have shuttered their eyes from the blazing glory of it all, only to open them and find the vision gone.
What happened next, though, means to take you by surprise. You see, the shepherds didn’t wait on the angel’s return. Instead, they ran off toward Bethlehem on foot in search of that thing the angel spoke of.
It was only after the angel left them, they began their journey toward the Christ Child. Just as it was only after the angel left his mother that she began to feel and tend the weight and purpose of his life in hers.
Though the shepherds aren’t the light in this story, they are the tenders of the light: the sort of people who keep fires burning, who tend the hope of warmth and light, who keep watch in dark places for good news.
I figure the angels left to make room for them to respond to God’s message.
This tells you something essential about Christmas: this tells you God leaves room for you to respond to his life among you, room for you to decide how you will live. This tells you God isn’t interested in one-sided relationships.
And the good news is this: God didn’t return with his angels into heaven. God stayed. And unimaginably, God stayed as one of us: as a child in need of our care, a savior calling each of you to respond to his love in and through your own life.
When the shepherds found that unimaginable thing the angel spoke of, they found a newborn child in need of love: they found life at its most helpless.
So, imagine what Mary must have seen that night: a crowd of shepherds piling in, smiling in goofy adoration. And somehow, without a single angel in attendance, those shepherds beheld — in the needy arms of her child — God above come down from heaven in need of their love and their care.
In that lowly room, they had all they needed to see each other as if all together they, too, were some kind of earthy miracle, some spark of an unimaginable love.
It sure beats the angels, though it needn’t. After all, we need the angels, if only to remind us that there is something deeply other among us and around us: something divine daring to come down into our care.
There is Christ: the light of the world, among us, between us, and yes within us.
Through the miracle of God Made Man, proclaimed by angels, all people wear the lustrous dress of Christmas. As dresses go, it looks a lot like ordinary human life, fraying at the edges yet illumined by God’s love.
The invitation is to go and see: to look for Christ in all people, and finding him there, to tend and care for those others as if they were Christ.
We are all more helpless, more in need of love, than we admit. Yet through Christ, we’re sent like those first shepherds into the dark to tend the fires of love with thanksgiving for the life of Jesus Christ, son of God born of Mary.