And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Luke 2:8-14 NIV)
Luke chapter 2 starts in the ordinary historical events of the time. Mary is pregnant and she travels with Joseph to Bethlehem, as they are required to do according to the decree of the ruling authorities. They presumably did not travel alone, since there would likely have been others in Nazareth, or at least in the Galilee region, who also traced their ancestry back to Bethlehem. By this time it was common knowledge in Nazareth that Joseph’s young wife was pregnant, though their marriage had not been formalised. Most would have assumed Joseph was the father, though he knew otherwise. According to Matthew’s gospel he had accepted her pregnancy and their prospective marriage also because of an encounter with an angel, but Luke does not record that meeting. There is nothing to suggest that Joseph had told anyone else about his angelic experience, so the people they knew just assumed Mary’s pregnancy was a sign of his lack of self control, his inability to wait until the socially accepted time for sex.
Whatever people thought, Joseph and Mary were effectively man and wife, and the teenage Mary was close to delivering her first baby – not a nice time to be travelling on foot to a distant and unfamiliar town without their usual supports and comforts. A first baby is a big event for every woman, and even in our modern and well equipped world, travel in the last few weeks is usually discouraged. In the ancient world it would increase the already considerable risks and Mary, aware of the closeness of her coming confinement, may well have wondered if she would ever see Nazareth again, or if she would, like so many others of her time, perish in childbirth. But an angel had spoken to her, and she believed that at least the child would survive. Perhaps that sustained her.
They arrived, Mary presumedly exhausted. There was nowhere to stay. It was cold. The story is well known. The only place for them was a cow shed, with no beds or chairs, just a hard floor smelling of manure and cow urine, and some feed troughs. Whether there were any animals there or not we can only guess. The sheep at least were out in the fields. The cattle may well have been too. There was no food, no room service, no heating. It was simply a place to get some shelter from the wind and the rain, or snow, if it was a cold winter. They had only the clothes and the bedding they had brought with them. Whether Joseph and Mary were alone or whether others were also crowded into this unpleasant shelter is unknown. Normal life was tough in ancient times, but for Joseph and Mary it was even worse than usual. Here they welcomed their first child into the world, in the cold and dirt and darkness of a middle eastern winter. This, if we are to believe the Bible story, was the way that God chose to enter the world, the way that the supernatural chose to invade the natural.
The scene shifts away from the tired travellers and the exhausted Mary to more insignificant people, shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem. Shepherds were not prominent members of society. They may well have been young guys, not necessarily the bearded men of popular tales. How many they were is not clear – three or four perhaps? They lived in the open and were used to the cold nights. The sheep were presumably corralled into some kind of enclosure at night, otherwise it would be hard to keep watch over them all, although the “flocks” were perhaps not hundreds of sheep but tens. How the shepherds survived the long nights without down sleeping bags and goretex and all the stuff that we associate with living rough is hard to know. They were used to it. In the middle of the night at least some of them must have been asleep. But a few were awake and they too, like all the others we have read about in these early chapters of Luke, encountered an angel. They responded as many would. They were scared. What they saw before them was not something they knew how to deal with. It was something well and truly out of their experience or their understanding. And this angelic being spoke to them. Don’t be afraid, he said. Then he was joined by a choir, a great company, of singing angels. The shepherds must have been completely stunned, totally overwhelmed. Then suddenly the angels were gone, back into that other dimension of reality that is called heaven in the Bible. The temporary portal between the natural and supernatural worlds closed up again and the shepherds were once again in the dark with their sheep.
Why on earth did God decide to supernaturally announce the birth of his Son to a group of dirty, illiterate shepherds? Can we believe their testimony, because it is surely only what they later said to people that has brought this unlikely story to us, thousands of years later. Luke obviously believed in it enough to include it in his account. It is an unlikely tale, but it has been indelibly etched into the minds and imaginations of millions of believers from that time to this. But it comes in the middle of a whole string of unlikely, and for many modern thinkers unbelievable, events. Jesus’ entry into the world was in many ways ordinary, but the invasion of earth by heaven could surely not happen without anything unusual occurring.
Perhaps this is what is most exciting about the Christian faith. It is not ordinary, it is not natural. It lets us touch the eternal, it lets us participate in the supernatural, it introduces us ordinary, unremarkable people into a dimension of reality that is anything but “normal.” When we meet Jesus everything changes, and life need never be “normal” again.