On Christmas, the line between heaven and
earth is blurred
The Gospel for Christmas Mass at dawn reminds us that
distinctions of “sacred and profane,” of “divine and secular” are constructs of
the human imagination. In Luke’s mind, God never intended the world to be so
compartmentalized, and the incarnation of Christ demonstrates this. The birth
of Jesus revealed that any part of creation could be a suitable dwelling place
for the Almighty.
In subtle ways, creation
continues to make Christ present today. Those of us who follow Christ and seek
his return must train ourselves to encounter him every day. As we become
skilled at seeking out these signs of grace, our ears may catch a hint of the
angels’ song and our minds discover the great glory of God all around us.
The incarnation of Christ
reminds us that the earth is sacred and that the human world we have
constructed upon it can be a vehicle for holiness. God, in fact, created it to
be this way, but human blindness obscured that reality. Part of the revelation
that Jesus’ birth offered was a reminder that God created the universe to dwell
in it with us, as the opening chapters of Genesis describe. In the incarnation,
the same dust that constitutes all things gave form to the Son as well.
In another example of the intertwining of the glorious
and the lowly, these shepherds become the Son’s first evangelists. Shepherds
were rough characters, spending their time following their flocks through wild
country beyond the comforts of settled life or Rome’s military protection.
Nativity sets often depict them as gentle pastoralists, but a better modern
parallel would be cowboys or bikers. These would be intimidating guests just
after a birth and even more unlikely bearers of a divine message. Nevertheless,
they were the ones the angels sent.
A scholar of Luke’s Gospel, François Bovon,
speaks of the “intertwining of the glorious and the lowly” in Luke’s account of
the incarnation. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the line between heaven and
earth is blurred. Not only do angels appear to shepherds, but they appear to
shepherds who are going about their normal duties. These are not individuals on
a vision quest or undergoing some kind of mystical initiation or heavenly
ascent. These are shepherds on the job, doing what they normally do, but on
that night, they perceived the glory of God and heard the angels’ anthem.
Luke does not speculate on the shepherds’ unusual sensitivity to God’s
voice that night or explain what kind of amazement their message provoked. His
account of the mingling of heaven and earth at the birth of Christ instead
directs later generations of disciples to pay attention to the grace all around
them. Jesus’ birth reminds us that any part of creation can communicate God’s
presence. If we live with that expectation, we, too, will hear angels sing even
as we toil. When we remember that sacred and profane are constructs of the
human mind, the glory of God will shine around us. Like those shepherds who were
Christ’s first evangelists, we, too, will have a message of amazement and joy
for all we meet.
Michael R. Simone, S.J., teaches Scripture at Boston College School of
Theology and Ministry