“The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”(Luke 2.20)
Like many others our family didn’t have an expansive budget at Christmas. Whatever preexisting financial pressure there was, it didn’t dissipate in December. My parents took this in stride, however, and Christmas never felt lacking but always like the season of abundance it’s traditionally been. Of course, that didn’t stop my father and his annual joke that this year had been particularly thin, and that all they could afford as a gift for me was a “Christmas stick”. One year he took the gag a step further, putting a bow on some feeble branch (sourced, I imagine, from our back yard) and placed it under the tree. I was relieved to discover other gifts, and we all had a good laugh.
Mother Teresa wrote:
“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty of all.”
Shepherds, you may have heard, weren’t well to do. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say they lived on the fringes of society, and the fringes are not usually places associated with abundance. But once the shepherds in Luke 2 returned from visiting the holy family – also found somewhat on the fringes – we’re told they’re strangely full because of what they’ve experienced, because of everything they’d heard and seen. Suddenly, the shepherds weren’t on the margins, but were brought into the middle of things, and came away overflowing.
God’s love does that. It makes us full when we tend to get by running on empty; it brings fullness to people living on the fringes; it draws us in when we’ve otherwise been shut out. As St. Luke records in Mary’s song, “He has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1.53). At the heart of the Christmas story is the reminder that God’s arrival in and through Jesus will mean love and provision for all people, especially the people who tend to find themselves, more often than not, forgotten. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” says Jesus, “for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5)
John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century English revivalist, describes his first personal brush with God’s love:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine…”
For Wesley what Mother Teresa calls “the greatest poverty of all” had been met with the greatest truth of all. He wasn’t unwanted, unloved and uncared for, alone in a cold, dark universe. He was precious to and loved by God. This is what the shepherds caught a glimpse of when they visited the baby in the manger; what Wesley describes when he became open to the truth about God’s love. This, I suspect, is why the shepherds came away bursting with thankfulness. They’d had a kind of first-hand taste of God’s provision, no longer languishing impoverished and forgotten. They might not have gotten the whole picture (a brush with God doesn’t mean we connect all the dots right away) but they came away full and thankful.
When we travel home to visit friends or family, we demonstrate that showing up is an important part of sharing love. Long distance relationships struggle, and in the end we need to be around one another in order to grow in intimacy. In part, that’s the heart of the Christmas story. It’s God turning up in all his fullness on the fringes, bringing his love and company to the impoverished and lonely. That’s what we see when we take time to look down at the infant in the manger. Through a baby’s cry we hear, loud and clear, that God’s not one half of a long-distance relationship.
Reflecting on scenes like the shepherds being brought into the middle of things, a very good question to ask ourselves is: who’s living on the fringes, on the margins? To whom does God wants to bring the fullness of his love and company?
Straight away we might imagine the poor, or otherwise overlooked people found on the fringes of our society. And we’d be right to remember the forgotten at Christmas, and why charity is such an integral tradition in this season. “I was hungry,” says Jesus “and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ (Matthew 25)
To whom does God wants to bring the fullness of his love and company? Maybe that’s us. Maybe we’re feeling a little on the outside, in need God’s enveloping kindness and warmth. Maybe part of feeling like we’re on the margins has to do with feeling like we’ve not got much margin left. Not much energy left, not much hope left, not much spirit left to keep going. But here we are in a season of celebration and abundance that says to us:
God’s here. Here with you on the fringes. Here to fill you with his love.
Questions for Discussion
Share a time you felt on the outside and someone brought you in?
Why is Christmas an important time for remembering those on the margins?
What does God’s love mean to you?