My favourite words from the Bible in the Christmas story are when the angels appear to the shepherds. Of course, the shepherds are afraid. In response to their fear, a whole host of angels sings, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
A couple of years ago, I visited the field where perhaps this all took place. Just outside of Bethlehem. Just inside Palestinian territory. Just a stone’s throw from the huge grey wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Just an ordinary field. That’s what it was that first Christmas: an ordinary field with ordinary shepherds and ordinary sheep. Suddenly there are angels and the whole place is filled with God’s glory.
There are numerous definitions for the word glory. Here it must mean something like “overwhelming beauty and splendor.” The word comes to us from Latin Gloria which means fame, renown, praise, ambition or boasting. When you think of it, this is what much of human society is about. Where do we place or seek glory. This type of glory is associated with success or fame. This is the type of glory that many of us want. We want to get the glory when we do our jobs well, when we succeed in the workplace. Or when we are on the sports field we want the glory when we score the winning goal. Or when you bake or cook something special for your family, you want them to give you some glory for what you have made. Think of how you feel when you don’t get a thank you, let alone some praise for your efforts.
In ancient Roman society, the ambition was the pursuit of glory and honour. The whole empire ran on the desire to achieve glory by conquering new lands and peoples. Failure for a leader to do this resulted in honourable suicide. It was important to the conquered to bow down and give glory to their Roman masters and to acknowledge Caesar as King.
God’s glory just seems to be something else. God’s glory is the beauty of God’s presence. It just is. It isn’t something that we are striving for. It is something that we just dwell in. We’ve all experienced this glory. The other day, I watched the sunset behind Vancouver Island from somewhere up in the North Shore mountains. Beautiful. Or gazing at a flower, lovelyl in its simplicity. Or paddling a canoe on a deserted lake in the woods. Or standing in a European cathedral that took years to build. A sense of God’s glory. Where do you find God’s glory?
Right from the very first few lines of the story about Jesus there is an apparent tension between the ways of God and the ways of humans. It is played out between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s empire. Didn’t Jesus say give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. An acknowledgement that we live in the empire and yet we strive to live out the values of God’s Kingdom. Mighty power versus truth, justice and simplicity.
It is surprising to the empire that God’s glory comes to shepherds, those who were about the lowest on the socio-economic ladder and despised by religious groups because of their work with animals. God’s glory comes not in Rome, or even Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem which the Bible tells us is “least in Judea.”
Jesus is born in a manger. Cattle shed, basement room, cave in hills, whatever a manger was, it seems that it was not the King David Hilton in Jerusalem. Lowly and crude. Among animals. I love the Christmas cards which depict the manger scene and have this shaft of light shining down on the baby Jesus. A depiction of the glory of God entering into the human world. The Gospel of John doesn’t have an actual birth story of Jesus but the opening of that Gospel puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son.
Quite often when people go to the Holy Land they say that they can feel the presence of God all over the place. True, a lot of religious action has been concentrated in a few hundred square kilometers. However, when I was in Bethlehem in the coldest January in years what struck me was not the glory of God shining all around, but rather, how strong the empire still is today. Bethlehem in Judea is today Bethlehem in Palestine. Who is right or wrong in the struggle between Israel and Palestine is a very complex issue, but what I observed was ordinary people having their power cut off three times a day and not having the means to properly heat their homes. I saw the hate slogans that the soldiers had written on the wall of a Christian centre. I heard of people unable to get adequate medical treatment which was available only a few kilometers away on the other side of the wall. I observed soldiers with guns at every bus stop. Then I saw the joy of children playing street soccer in the shadow of the wall. I saw two elderly men joking with each other. A shopkeeper smiled as he greeted passersby. It struck me that even here, in Bethlehem of Palestine, God’s glory could shine through. The world and all of its trappings of grandeur and power might be strong, but somehow God’s glory shines through in weakness and simplicity.
Where do you see God’s glory? God’s glory is God’s “yes” to us. Glory can be revealed in simple human gestures, little things in everyday life. In a smile. Just as the birth of Jesus took place in a small town in a simple manger so too does God’s glory shine in the simple everyday. The glory of God came to the shepherds while they were in the midst of their daily routine…may God’s glory come to all of us this Christmas time in the midst of our daily lives and may we share that glory of God with those around us.