Two oft ignored sentences should grab our attention in this section of the Christmas story. “…the angels had left them…” and “the shepherds returned….” Together, both statements capture the challenge of this Christmas season.
The angels left: “The heavenly host” must have been an awesome display and a profound religious experience for shepherds gathered in the fields. These moments occur in our lives and sometimes catch us unaware. But the moments when we experience the numinous end. Indeed, angels leave and return to heaven. The experience was a call to action for the shepherds. It arouses spiritual curiosity and they are not merely content with this experience, but seek to understand it: “Let us go ... and see this thing... which the Lord has made known to us.”
The shepherds returned: Once again we are confronted with reality. The sheep still needed shepherding and so the shepherds returned to their flocks. The daily chores continued There was still a job to do… but with a profound difference. Work, responsibilities, indeed life itself were transformed by the experience. It would no longer be the same. From that moment forth these humble shepherds would “glorify God” and (if we may be Presbyterian) “enjoy God forever!”
Christmas is a time when we are opened to the experience of the numinous. It may be the sermon on Christmas Eve; the candlelight carol service; an unexpected gift; a smile from a stranger; a sense of hope amidst the despair of the current age. Christmas is a season of moments, holy moments. We are touched by angels and even the grumpiest scrooge is not immune. But moments end. The angels leave. As quick as it happened, it is “the day after.” The tree comes down. The carols are silenced. The wrappings of the season are bundled and tossed away. And we must return. We return to work. We return to our routines. We return to our problems. We return to our illnesses, our foibles, and our travails. Indeed, we return to our humanity. The challenge of Christmas is this return. Can we join the shepherds and return “glorifying and praising God” for all we have seen, as it has been told to us?