I love a good story and Christmas provides many, some from the Bible and some not. The short story Let Nothing You Dismay by Ruth Harden is a favorite of mine with a winsome and humorous ending. The Biblical Christmas stories are not exactly humorous but they are certainly joyful. I would say they are realistic, not in the sense that they are easy to believe, but that they take place in the real world where we live with its “sin and want and sorrow.” I rediscovered the significance of those precious stories with new attention to a familiar verse from Luke’s 2:20: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
My attention, at first, turned to the “glorifying and praising of God.” Energetically enthusiastic worship would be an expected response to seeing and hearing a worshipful multitude of heavenly angels. Worship calls forth worship and the shepherds in this story are caught up in a truly incredible event.
But, upon second thought, “the things that had been told them” refers to something beyond the shepherds’ own story. This celebration arose out of stories told by Mary and Joseph. Not simply from the shepherds’ own hillside experience of angelic wonder and song, but also from events related by an amazing young mother after the birth of her son Jesus. Those accounts comprised stories that became a collection of gifts that you and I have likely enjoyed and pondered over many years with excitement and delight.
The likely occasion of their first telling fascinates me. The rather unbelievable details would not have been welcomed by most. Hearers would no doubt wonder what they should do to help such a delusional pregnant girl. “Impregnated by the spirit of God” would not satisfy even the simplest of friends. I bet Mary kept that story to herself. Months of silence would likely be unbearable. But on the wonderful day she gave birth, shepherds visited with their own story of angels sending them to Mary’s side. Don’t you know that Mary was ready to bare her soul!
The fact that Mary was the likely source is also intriguing. Perhaps you, like me, think of Mary as a quiet soul who preferred the contemplative side of spirituality. Her song of praise shows that she was able to express herself eloquently. It suggests that she drew her words from deep wells of scriptural understanding. In the same way, her words must have flowed the very night Jesus was born. Mary’s audience could be entrusted with the truth about how this baby Jesus was conceived, carried and born. Stories so familiar to us today, must have been uttered that night by Mary with all the fresh delight afforded by a shared joy and amazement. Descriptive words such as “mellow,” “somber” or “restrained” wouldn’t fit on this occasion. Think of it! A weary young mother excitedly told, as never before, a patchwork of wonderful events. The worshipful excitement of the shepherds upon their return demands such an explanation. Wouldn’t you agree? Mary’s words must have been something very special as was the baby himself.
Yet, the worship of the shepherds was not simply because of fascinating stories. No amount of personal detail or engaging story telling would give rise to exuberant adoration and praise in itself. Christmas stories can be wonderful and we all know how to enjoy a well told story. But Christmas is not simply stories. The shepherds’ response was full of excited worship and praise to God. Christmas without worship and praise to God simply isn’t Christmas.
Mary probably didn’t need to connect the dots for these young shepherds. The events leading up to Jesus’ birth and his actual birth in the city of David said it all. Her stories were Christmas gifts. God was in the midst of fulfilling ancient promises. Jesus entered the world to accomplish things wonderful, incredible and far reaching. Through Mary’s first Christmas gifts the world truly learned of Jesus. We still learn of him and who he really is because of her stories. Glorifying and praising God naturally follows. I hope you have a most worshipful Christmas!
Roger G. Collins, Grace Presbyterian Church, Byram; *English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. Exported from Logos Bible Software; Originally published in the December 2013 Byram Banner, Byram Mississippi.