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written by Constance Morgenstern

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Thoughts for "The Shepherds Recollect"

God often works the way a poet writes.

As an earthly poet, I try to arrange words to be especially rich in meaning.God's scope is bigger. God arranges events.

The manger of the Christmas story, especially, hints at this. Yes, it's the manger that fed the animals in the stable where Jesus was born. It's the manger where Mary placed infant Jesus after wrapping him snugly in cloth. It's the manger that an angel messenger announced would be a "sign" for the shepherds. All this is in Luke 2:1-20. Click on the link to refresh your memory.

You can regard the manger, at first, as nothing more than a signpost. Surely, it's a way for the shepherds to quickly find, and then recognize, the infant Messiah. Except—and here's where the poetry comes in—
that "sign" of the manger is also laden with symbolism and signs of things to come…,

Jesus, during his years of ministry, really didn't have a home (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus' climactic entry into Jerusalem had him riding on a donkey, not some prancing, powerful warhorse (Luke 19:29-40).

Jesus died on a degrading cross between criminals (Luke 23:32-46).

Hmmm… a manger for a crib. This could be the start of something… humble.

Now there are plenty of Old Testament prophecies about the expected Messiah. Many predict how great he would be (including Genesis 3:15, 22:18, 49:10, Psalm 16:10, 68:18-20, 110:1-2, Isaiah 2:4, 7:14, 9:2-7, Jeremiah 23:5-6). Others, however, suggest an unexpectedly humble side (Psalm 118:22-23, Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9:9).

And so we have the manger, and the statement that the shepherds did find the baby exactly in a manger, as the angels had told them. They gushed their angel news to Mary, who kept this in her heart, while they joyfully told everyone they saw. And all were amazed.

(We assume it was Mary who recounted this later, as well as other stories of her pregnancy, so that the recollections were written into the gospel of Luke. Mary is, in fact, mentioned among the early believers of the Christian church in Acts 1:14.)

We also know what happened to Mary, Joseph and Jesus after their time in Bethlehem. Being warned by an angel, they fled to Egypt to escape the murderous rampage of King Herod (Matthew 2:1-18). As for the shepherds, we were told that they had gone back to their sheep, on pastures outside of Bethlehem. But what happened after that? Did the shepherds' belief and amazement continue?

I really think they "got it." I think they had one of the very first Christian encounters—before there was even that word—and that it changed
them permanently.

Those shepherds were given a heavenly proclamation and saw a host
of angels praising God! That had to be a mind-blowing, miraculous experience!

However, people can have miraculous experiences and not let it change their lives. In Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge tries to dismiss his vision of (very dead) Marley as "an undigested bit of beef." That's funny, but it's also descriptive. We often want to dismiss miracles, because the ramifications of accepting them as true would rattle our cages waaaaaaaay too much.

So, we might write off little miracles as "lucky breaks" or "coincidences" when sometimes, they're "God-incidences." Or, we might actually see them as God working and still "keep them in our hearts." (From hearing other Christians, I believe such experiences are much more common than people assume.)

For the shepherds, it would have been hard to dismiss the angel visitation as "a bit of undigested beef," or even a dream, because they all saw it. Still, I think there are more important reasons that the shepherds were amazed and changed. And so, we're back to the "sign" of the manger.

A manger was something the shepherds would know. Since a manger held hay or other animal fodder, and the shepherds did care for animals, a manger was a commonplace thing for them.

The manger was also in a stable. The shepherds apparently looked and walked right in.

This is God coming to us on our turf. The prophet Isaiah, centuries before, announced that the Messiah would be called "Emmanuel" meaning "God with us" (Isaiah 7:14). This is it. The shepherds were privileged to see both parts of this name: The angels' proclamation and praise supplied the "God" part. The manger says, "with us."

And, even today, maybe the harder part to dismiss is the "with us."

All through Jesus' adult ministry, he made personal connections with people, and those people were changed. Consider the "Woman at the Well" in John 4:4-42, who ran to tell others about Jesus: "Could he be the Messiah? she said. "He told me everything I have ever done." Or, consider Zachaeus, the outcast tax collector, whom Jesus called by name out of a tree before going to his house to share a meal (Luke 19:1-10). Or, consider the long-ill woman who touched Jesus' hem, rather anonymously, to be healed—except that he didn't let her stay anonymous (Mark 5:24b-34).

I think the shepherds' joy was not just that the long-yearned-for Messiah had arrived to do great things for the world. It's also that they—personally—were welcomed to see him!

Perhaps the shepherds are kin to later Christians in another way as well: They saw something wonderful from God, but realized that its completion was yet to come. In the meantime, they celebrated what they had been given and trusted the Lord.

Now, as a writer, I admit that it's an artistic leap to say that the shepherds were permanent believers after that night. And if you think I've overstepped my bounds by writing that way, go ahead and use the alternate ending for the song. But, every time I allow for that possibility, my insides cry out. No, the shepherds "got it." They took in the marvel of Heaven's Holy Messiah coming to earth so humbly.

Jesus will go on to speak amazing things for himself. Until then, God's remarkable sign of the manger says a lot.

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