Christmas Eve: Good news

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Good news.

“To you is born this day a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.”

Good news indeed.

The shepherds were, it is safe to say, not used to hearing good news from angels shining with the glory of the Lord. In fact, they didn’t hear good news very often at all. Shepherds were outsiders, almost outcasts; they lived outside of the towns, with their flocks; they tended to get into disputes about grazing land and lost sheep and goats. They were the kind of people who could really use a good word, even one from a scary flock of angels.

But more than that, according to my former teacher, Tom Wright, “good news” was a fairly specific technical term in first-century Judea. That particular turn of phrase, “good news,” was infrequently heard, because it had a pretty precise meaning.

First, for the Jewish people, it meant God had fulfilled the promises made to their forefathers, and completed God’s victory over evil and oppression, setting the people free. This might be the shepherd’s expectation of good news delivered by messengers of God.

The other source of good news was the Roman empire. The news machines of the Roman empire were the town criers, who would deliver dispatches to the citizens on the town square. They would tell what needed to be reported about new conquests, new taxes, new laws, new roads – good news and bad – but the only time, I am told, that they used the phrase, “Good news,” was when a new emperor had acceded to the imperial throne, or on the emperor’s birthday.[1]

Good news: God has triumphed over the forces of darkness, and is leading creation into the dawning of a new light, and, what is more, there is a new emperor born this day and ready to take his seat at the head of his people, at the head of the known world.

Good news.

But then, there is a disconnect. The good news of triumph, the good news of a new king, is not heralded by political upheaval or military might, it is not achieved by elections or uprisings, it relies not on the death of an old emperor but on the humble and unobserved birth of a child whose crib is a manger, a feeding box for animals, whose warmth, rather than purple robes or heavy armour, shields him from the night.

The angels come first, not to the Roman senators nor even to the sentinels of the temple, but to the shepherds. They come to call them not to take arms, but to take heart, at the birth of a new life.

God’s strength is not dependent on our might. God’s victory is not dependent on our fight. God’s love is stronger than death, stronger than armies, stronger than our doubts, and it is expressed through the ultimate weakness and vulnerability of a newborn child.

Make no mistake. The one lying there, new and wrinkly and naked and wriggly, wrapped in strips of cloth, bedded in hay, smelly faintly of sheep and cow, that one is the King of kings and lord of Lords. The poorest child, who doesn’t even have a bed, who is born miles from home, at the mercy of the kindness of strangers, that one is the new king born today, the emperor of heaven and earth, the author of our salvation. That small infant is more powerful than the angels, his voice will last longer than their song, his love will outlive their light.

It is astonishing. It is good news. It is the kind that only God could get away with.

There is a children’s story about east wind and the west wind fighting over who is the stronger; I am sorry that I can’t remember where it comes from, but basically, the east wind is determined that he must be stronger than the west wind, so he challenges her to contest. They see a man walking down the street in a wool coat. “I can blow so hard I will take the coat right off that man!” boasts the east wind. “Can you?” “I can,” replies the west wind.

The east wind goes first. He blows his hardest and harshest breath at the man, cold and unforgiving, and the harder he blows the more tightly the man gathers his coat around himself. Eventually, the east wind is spent, but, he says, “At least there’s no way you can get the coat off him either; if I couldn’t, you don’t stand a chance.”

The west wind smiled. She looked around them, and spotted some fluffy white clouds, covering the sun. Gently, she shooed them away, and they fell over themselves giggly and bouncing on her breath. The sun came out, warm and bright, and the man, beginning to sweat a little, took off his coat.

There might have been just a little shock and awe involved in the sending of a crowd of angels to sing to astonished shepherds, but really, wasn’t it just as gentle and as playful as the west wind. No flaming swords in sight. God did not break our hearts to win us back, to accomplish God’s triumph over evil, God’s plan for the salvation of all flesh, good news for all the world. Instead, God melted our hearts by warming them with the fire of tenderness which a new baby kindles, the passion of peace, the sweet stillness of a sleeping newborn.

Good news. In an uncertain and anxious world, it is comforting, it is good news to hear that the angels preached not war but peace, not strength but humility, the glory that is found in the meanest of circumstances, wherever love is found and life abounds. Good news to the poor, the unlovely, the outsiders. Good news which sneaks into your heart rather than beating down the door, which invites love and tenderness rather than triumph, passion tempered with the quietness which tiptoes around a sleeping baby. Good news which calls us to gentleness, to peacefulness, to love for one another, even for the outcasts, even for the unlovely, even for the unusual family living in highly unusual circumstances: how much more unusual than a baby born into an animals’ feeding trough? Good news which calls us to care especially for the vulnerable child, the little one, who depends upon the kindness of strangers. We witnessed all too recently and all too keenly the vulnerability of our children, and the kindness, the love with which their teachers were determined to defend them.

The Archbishop of Canterbury reached out Friday in a radio broadcast to address the problem of good news in difficult times, of proclaiming peace on earth in the midst of our distress and our grief. He said, in part, “If all you have is a hammer, it’s sometimes said, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target. …[but] If all you have is the child’s openness and willingness to be loved, everything looks like a promise.”[2]

The good news of God’s victory, of the accession of a new emperor, was given first to shepherds as a promise: “You will find the child lying in a manger.” Through that promise the powerless were entrusted with the power to proclaim good news, that phrase reserved to the Romans’ town criers on the accession and anniversaries of emperors. The unlovely were trusted with the love of Christ, the good news of God’s victory over evil and oppression. Those who dwelt in the darkness, out on the hillside, have been blessed with the light of the world. The fringe element of society blessed with the ability to change lives.

That is the gift which the angels offer us tonight, and it is up to us to use it wisely, and in accordance with God’s promises of peace.

And so, even so, even in the midst of chaos and strife, there is good news. God has broken into the world with the cry of a newborn child, with the lullaby of angels, with a word to the unwise shepherds, armed only with the weapons of love and gentleness, with good news of great joy for all people:

“To you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to all those whom God favours.”

[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, 2nd edition (London and Louisville: SPCK and Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 307

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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