Sing With The Shepherds

I woke up on Christmas Eve morning this year with child-like eagerness. After all the waiting through Advent, now it was time to enter, once again, into the mystery of the manger in Bethlehem. There we find the baby cradled in his mother’s arms. There too the animals chewing on the straw. And there those startling, celestial choirs breaking out all across the fields. Something big is going on here. Oh such mystery. I was eager to return, once again, to the manger on this Christmas Eve morning.

I thought, you know, two billion Christians across the globe will sing throughout the day and into the night the very song the shepherds heard: “Glory to God in the highest.” And we will pray, once again, that peace on earth will come to our tortured world through this very child.

But then, before heading off to church that morning, I scanned the newspapers, looking for the ways our papers might honor this sacred day. Alas, there was not a mention of anything special going on. There was nothing at all about the big news of Christmas Eve.

The New York Times featured a column by Nicholas Kristof interviewing New Jersey Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Kristof quickly promises he will put “blunt questions and more” to the Cardinal. He will offer up at least “respectful skepticism.” I revere “Jesus’ teachings,” he says, “but I have trouble with the miracles—including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth. . . . Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?” In other words, aren’t we all at best doubters of those mysterious things that antiquated Christians celebrate on this Christmas Eve morning? Be careful, we can’t let too much mystery into our lives.

Across the page there was another op-ed by the novelist Courtney Sullivan who fondly remembers a visit she once made to a convent. There she found herself “waking before dawn for Mass, working the farm alongside the nuns in full habit.” Oh those nuns were amazing women, she informs us, smart, articulate, involved in all kinds of social issues. What a quaint, lovely time it was. Sullivan reminds us how awful the world is, and this causes her, on this Christmas Eve, to “long for the quiet, the natural beauty, the sense of timelessness” she found in her short sojourn at the convent.

But once again, like Kristof, Sullivan wants us to know she is a lapsed Catholic, really “a skeptic from the start.” She is proud to have confronted a priest one time, asking “why God, with all that was wrong in the world, would possibly care about birth control?” Not once in her piece does she take notice that the center of the lives of these extraordinary nuns is worshiping God. In their daily discipline they too sing “Glory to God in the highest,” just like the shepherds of old.

Well, there is a major disconnect going on for Christians these days. We may get up ready to join the choir of the ages only to meet pervasive condescension and dismissal. This is the new orthodoxy of our day. Really, there is no need for Christmas Eve, probably no real manger anyway, no Christ child who came to save the world from its struggles and injustice and pain, no loving God who came through Jesus to make all things right. Be careful of letting any mystery, we are told, into the stories by which we live.

What we get is life utterly devoid of anything remotely transcendent. Oh my, I felt that morning, reading my papers, that I was handed a closed, cramped universe. It felt so suffocating. It’s as if a lid had been placed down over our lives, blocking the fresh air, limiting bigger horizons. Give us a star, for goodness sakes, that shines over a manger. Give us a song that belts out over the startled fields.

Well, on Christmas Eve morning, for me at least, it was as if God lifted that lid and suddenly I too heard the choirs singing. Dazzling, mysterious, a world made new. On Christmas Eve morning, that’s where I found the big news of the day. All that other news seemed so paltry, so stunted by suspicion and skepticism. Give me the full story, for goodness sakes. Give me the chance to sing with the shepherds.