I’m looking at our family nativity scene in our bay window right now. There are Mary and Joseph, some angels, a few shepherds, and three wise men, all surrounding a creche that contains the baby Jesus, who is the focal point of the scene. When we talk about “the meaning of Christmas”, this is what we usually mean: Christmas is a story about the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.
But what is the Christmas story about, really? Is it a story about the birth of a baby who would become the Savior of the world? I don’t think so.
The shepherds of the Christmas story are out in the fields with their flocks at night, when angels appear to them and declare “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people”. We know this part of the story: even those non-religious among us can often recite this verse by heart.
I am a part-time shepherd; my family runs a small-scale sheep farm. At the time of year of the Christmas story – early spring – lambing is in full swing. I can tell you from personal experience that lambs are never born in the daytime; they always seem to come at 3 AM. Lambing is hard, dirty, tiring work. You get covered in blood and fluids and mud and sheep poop. And although seeing a perfectly formed lamb come into the world and take its first wobbly steps is a tremendously rewarding experience, it’s also one that takes place in perfect loneliness. Nobody else is there to see it. It’s just you and the sheep.
Of all the people in Israel, which included a king, priests, Levites, and shopkeepers, carpenters, and all the other trades, why did the angels appear specifically to the shepherds? One reason, of course, is that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, and so the shepherds were a symbol of him. But I think there’s a better, more fundamental reason: it is because, as a good friend once pointed out to me, of all the people in Israel that night, the shepherds were the ones who were waiting for a birth.
These people had an angelic visitation because they were doing their jobs, and had always done their jobs, regardless of whether their kings and priests were gifted or incompetent, righteous or wicked. The shepherd goes out into the field with his flock no matter what the world is or does. And so, when the savior is born, the shepherd is guaranteed to be in exactly the right place.
The shepherds, seeing the angels, reacted with joy and ran into the city to find the child (presumably leaving at least some shepherds behind to continue caring for the flock, because that’s what shepherds do).
In addition to being a part-time shepherd, I am a full-time scientist, and there are scientists in this story as well. For in contrast to Luke’s shepherds are Matthew’s wise men, who came “from the east”. It may appear that we don’t know much about the wise men, but that’s not actually true. If you look on a map, you will see that to the east of Bethlehem is five hundred miles of desert. Nobody lives there. The first city you reach is Babylon, the jewel of the ancient world. The word “magi” is an Anglicization of the Greek word “magoi“, which is the word that is translated as “wise men” in the King James Version. “Magoi” has a specific meaning: it refers to the Babylonian court astrologers whose job was to study the sky in order to predict the weather and the seasons and to record the portents in the heavens – portents of good or bad, the death of nations and the birth of kings. When the ancient Babylonian ruins began to be investigated in the 1800s, we discovered two thousand years worth of star catalogues; the information is occasionally still used today by astronomers to correlate currently visible nebulae with the supernovae that created them.
Unlike the shepherds, who were among the least formally educated of men, the magoi came from the society that literally invented writing. They had at their disposal the literary and philosophical treasures of the ancient world. They were possibly the most educated men the world had ever seen up to that time. The magoi were so good at their jobs that they actually invented the necessary mathematics to predict eclipses and planetary conjunctions, which is why they had the reputation of being magicians and seers: to the people of the time, it looked like they could predict the future. But, really, they were the world’s first scientists. They had worked out a philosophical approach to observational astronomy that is a forerunner to the modern scientific method.
This is why the magoi noticed the rising of a star in the east. Nobody else saw it; it was apparently very faint, or may have referred to a unique planetary conjunction that no one else would have known about or thought interesting other than astronomers with thousands of years of records at hand. They may have been able to correlate the heavenly signs with the Jewish messiah because the Jews had lived in Babylon after the great exile for hundreds of years, where the rabbis presumably interacted with the magoi, providing them with the Jewish prophecies. In any case, these scientists were sufficiently moved by what they saw that they prepared for the journey of a lifetime, a thousand miles or more across the great Arabian desert and back on camels, to pay homage to the newly born king.
Like the shepherds, the magoi were in their own way fulfilling the measure of their creation. The job they were born to was to try to understand and predict the heavens – to find God the Creator through their minds and their mathematics.
When I was in college, I was required to take a literature class, so I chose a class on short stories, on the theory that there would be at least one or two stories I liked. Overall the class was terrible, and I remember very little about it other than repeatedly being told how wrong my literary interpretations were. But one thing stuck with me. The professor had us read several different stories and identify the protagonist in each. This seems absurdly simple, but actually turned out to be tricky. Because, you see, “protagonist” has a specific technical definition, and it isn’t “the main character”. The protagonist of a story is the character or characters who change and (usually) grow, and in some modern literature this is not the main character.
So who is the protagonist in the Christmas story?
It isn’t Jesus. Jesus is a static figure in this story: He is just a baby, and doesn’t change or grow. The protagonists of this story are the shepherds and the magoi. In a literary sense, the Christmas story isn’t about the birth of the Messiah. It’s about the people who find out about the Messiah and how they react to that knowledge.
Notice that each finds out in a different way. For the shepherds, it’s because they are where they should be, doing the jobs appointed to them, as they had done for countless generations. For the magoi, it’s because they grappled with the scriptures of a foreign religion and studied the universe, as they had also done for thousands of years – and because these particular magoi were courageous enough to follow where those subtle signs led them.
But also notice that no matter how they started, they all ended in the same place: kneeling in the manger, announcing to all present that the Savior had been born.
This tells me that the Christmas story is not a story that ended two thousand years ago. It’s your story and my story; it’s the story of everyone who comes to realize that the Savior has been born. It’s the story of the unique way each of us comes by that knowledge and what we decide to do with it. On a day to come, our stories will be read along with those written in Luke and Matthew, and will be no less important.
It also tells me that there is no wrong way to come to Christ. Sometimes in the church we privilege those who have seen the angels. But this is wrongheaded, I think. The important thing is not the way each of us comes to our faith; it is that we come, through whatever route God has provided us, and that we tell each other the story of our respective journeys. We are like the four blind men and the elephant: those of us who see angels or walk daily with the Spirit have a different knowledge than those of us who see the hand of the Creator in the genetics of the sheep, the spiral of the galaxies, and the beauty of the chemistry, physics, and mathematics that underlie them. But the knowledge of angels is not better than the knowledge of galaxies. It is just different.
The story of Christmas is not and cannot be complete without the shepherds’ story of angelic visitations and shouts of praise, nor without the magoi‘s story of diligent observation and study and long silent journeys across the desert. We cannot hope to know Christ and His story without first knowing each other, without seeing aspects of His countenance in each other’s faces and lives.
I am like the magoi. I am a scientist. Faith does not come easily to me. But I tell you that I can see God’s hand in places and ways that you cannot. And you can see Him in times and occurrences that leave me doubting. You may be able to see the trunk of the elephant; I can see the tail. We all need each other to understand the beauty of the whole.
Join me at the manger this week. Teach me of the angels. I’ll tell you about the galaxies.