Angels, Shepherds, and Luke’s Immortal Story

I am rereading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the story about the change of heart wrought upon the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge after he is haunted by four ghosts who help him discover the true meaning of Christmas: peace on earth, good will toward all. 

In Dickens, the supernatural connects with the terrestrial and a wonderful tale unfolds.  But it is an oft-told tale.  The latest remake of A Christmas Carol stars Jim Carrey, who is shellacked in anime and recites Mr. Dickens’s lines with characteristic comedic aplomb.  This current (2009) version is as good as the former ones, whether starring Alistair Sim or George C. Scott or even Donald Duck or Mr. Magoo, only tailored to appeal to the holographic age.  Tomorrow will be something new.      

A classic story appeals to all generations.  By that definition, the greatest Christmas classic is the Gospel According to Luke.  The story of the birth of Jesus in the stable and the visit by the shepherds is one of the best-loved stories in the Bible.  Like Cats it runs year after year and the show always sells out. 

In Luke, characters from heaven and earth interact and nothing is impossible for the God-Hero.  A child is born in a stable and the news is proclaimed to nameless shepherds by an angel. “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).  These shepherds become witnesses to God’s glory, which floods the nighttime field like sunlight.  “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see what has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (v. 15).  And off they go. 

In Scripture, angels exist to make visible the invisible and to serve as intermediaries between man and God.  A cherub armed with a fiery revolving sword guards the gate of Paradise after Adam and Eve sinned.  The angel stays the hand of Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering Isaac.  In Exodus the Israelites follow the angel in the form of a cloud by day and a column of fire by night.  Another angel, “terrible indeed,” foretells the birth of Samson, prefiguring the birth of John the Baptist a thousand years later.  Gabriel the Archangel convinces Mary that she has been chosen to be the Mother of God and the angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds, nameless characters without power or status, that Christ the Lord has been born and offers them the first audience with the newborn king.

The rhetorical strategies used by Luke girded his gospel to survive for two millennia.  As a writer he uses logic to appeal to the world’s empty heart, a void that can only be filled by God.  Luke composed both the gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles, so that the ‘lover of God,’ Theophilus, could “realize with certainty” that the Word of the Lord is trustworthy.  A highly skilled writer with an excellent command of the Greek language of the day, Luke wanted to ensure that the facts of Jesus’s birth came to light “accurately and anew.”  Many gospels circulated back then but without the basis of apostolic preaching they lacked authenticity and faded into fable. 

Luke balances the miraculous with the pedestrian. He sets his narrative squarely in the middle of history, in real time.  He places the birth of Jesus in an historical setting, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, who orders the worldwide census (causing Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem to register).  The Nativity takes place within human affairs, amid our struggles, among us, in our time.  Like his children, God is vulnerable and exposed to the world that he created.  He is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” 

God proved this one night in 1914, on the frozen battlefield of World War I.  Allied and Axis troops called a truce.  This event inspired the film Joeux Noel, another instant and enduring classic.  In the story, care packages from home arrived that afternoon in the trenches and the Germans, feeling festive, hoisted Christmas trees atop the trenches and began to sing Adeste Fidelis.  Their caroling drew not grenades but applause and soon soldiers in both camps held up signs wishing one another Merry Christmas.  Soon the troops began fraternizing in the No Man’s Land – amid razor wire and the corpses of fallen comrades – sharing cigarettes, brandy, and Christmas cookies.  A soccer game happened – the Germans won 4-1.  On this most holy night, God reminded the world that nothing, not even “the war to end all wars,” could stop the Prince of Peace from being born. 

To Luke, Jesus is the God-Hero, the Wonder-Counselor, the Father-Forever at work through nations, leaders, laws, and human events.  Though he was an historian, Luke does not draw us back to some “golden age of the Church” – because it doesn’t exist.  Christ continues to be born into a world at war, in poverty, filled with conflicts and doubt, riches, ruin, and glamour.  Luke writes not only of Jesus and the Apostles but of Caesar and lowly shepherds, not only of Rome and Athens the seats of power and wisdom in the empire but of something that happened in a stable, an event very few people witnessed — only Luke the reliable narrator tells us that it is true.  

So much of our classic movies and literature are based on the stories revealed to us by God in Sacred Scripture.  Luke’s gospel is truly an immortal classic, a story that never needs updating with graphic displays or exploding finales.  As a writer he has handed onto us the truth which was made known from the beginning.  His audience is the same as it was in AD 75 or so when his gospel was first published: Friends of God.

Father Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MDiv from Pope Saint John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tucker.cordani and Twitter @tuckercordani