Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
For the Christmas Eve preacher, it may feel challenging to find anything new to say about this familiar story from Luke 2. What might possibly have been missed in the centuries throughout which this story has been told? It is precisely this act of attending to absences that might allow this old story to be experienced anew on this Christmas Eve. By attending to what is not in this text and looking for who is not in the settings where this text is proclaimed, we might be equipped to hear these words again as good news for all.
The View From the Shepherds’ Pasture
Unlike Matthew’s account of Jesus’s infancy, which includes exotic magi who travel from great distances to see the young Jesus, Luke’s narrative describes the initial revelation of Jesus’ birth to shepherds gathered in the fields (2:8). These shepherds are, perhaps, among the most important characters of this story because of their role as witnesses who can confirm the veracity of what has transpired.
Despite some approaches to this account that try to emphasize the lowliness of the shepherds or the shamefulness of their position, the text itself offers no such critique. Rather, it presents these shepherds as worthy witnesses to Jesus’s birth.
Furthermore, the use of shepherding as a metaphor for ruling appears throughout the Hebrew Bible. In several texts, people who live under the rule of poor or absent kings are described as sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Nahum 3:18). Shepherding also receives a positive spin in Psalm 23 where God is compared to a good shepherd who provides attention to the sheep in God’s care. In short, these precedents from the Hebrew Bible offer no suggestion that shepherding should be understood as a shameful profession. Rather, the work of shepherding appears to be an accepted way of describing how an ideal ruler should interact with those in their care.
Little detail is provided about the particular shepherds that we meet in Luke 2. Nonetheless, the text seems to assume that these shepherds are up to the task of receiving and responding to an important mission. They are given a commission to look for something that might not seem to be present. They are to search for significance in an otherwise mundane and quotidian occurrence: the birth of a child.
While births are, undoubtedly, occasions for celebration, they are not clearly “signs” (2:12) that might otherwise be used as a marker of something of celestial significance. This birth, however, is different. Indeed, the angelic host that appears on the scene heralds the far-reaching impact of this baby’s birth as an occasion for praising the divine (2:13-14). In short, then, the shepherds are tasked with looking for what might not be immediately evident: cosmic significance within the mundane. Their ability to attend to what might otherwise appear absent serves as a helpful example for audiences today who might look for what is absent in this story and in our own communities.
Luke’s infancy narrative may at first feel intimately familiar. Nonetheless, it is a story that through its re-telling has come to accrue several additions that are absent in the text itself. A scene in which a laboring Mary is going door to door with Joseph seeking out lodging is absent here. The translation of 2:7 in some versions can result in this misleading direction. The word sometimes rendered as “inn” might be better translated as “guest room.” Thus, one will look in vain for an innkeeper to turn away the holy family.
Furthermore, the text lacks any indication of the extent of Mary’s pregnancy upon arrival or her mode of travel. (There’s no donkey mentioned here!) Given what can be known of ancient conventions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, it is highly unlikely that Mary and Joseph would have attempted the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Rather, it seems more likely that the couple would have traveled several weeks (or even months) prior to the birth in order to receive support and assistance from the family in Bethlehem from whom Joseph hailed (2:4).
Beyond these extraneous details, sometimes inserted in certain recitations of Jesus’s birth story, the scene of the birth is also notable for some of the “absences” that some audiences might encounter. Audiences looking for a barn or stable will find only a manger (2:7) that may well have been a feature of the lower level of most houses where some animals might have been brought inside for the night. A search in the text for these animals, though, will be in vain. The lowing cattle of Christmas carols are also absent. While shepherds watch their flocks in the field by night (2:8), no sheep are mentioned at the birth scene.
Good News for All
The task of reading this familiar story with an eye to the details that are not there is a good practice for both the preacher and their congregations. That is, this practice encourages a careful and critical look at something that can feel so familiar that it may seem that nothing new can be discovered.
Nevertheless, this practice of looking for what is absent can contribute to an equally helpful practice for families, congregations, and communities. That is, using the same skill of looking for what is absent in the infancy narrative, today’s audience of this text might be encouraged to consider who is absent from our celebratory Christmas Eve services, our family dinners, and our gift exchanges. Who is not being included in such holiday festivities?
By looking for and identifying those who are absent from our communities today, we can better proclaim the message of the angels to the shepherds: Jesus’ birth is good news for all people (2:10). This is not just good news for a few privileged recipients of an elite message. This is good news for all, even those who might be marginalized, oppressed, or otherwise absent from the spaces where good news is often proclaimed.