January 28, 2021

Another Look: The Pastoral Nativity

Yorkshire in Winter. Photo by Tejvan Pettinger

Yorkshire in Winter. Photo by Tejvan Pettinger

“Luke is interested in the symbolism of the manger, and the lack of room in the lodgings may be no more than a vague surmise in order to explain the mention of a manger. This manger is not a sign of poverty but is probably meant to evoke God’s complaint against Israel in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.” Luke is proclaiming that the Isaian dictum has been repealed. Now, when the good news of the birth of their Lord is proclaimed to the shepherds, they go to find the baby in the manger and begin to praise God. In other words, God’s people have begun to know the manger of their Lord.”

– Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ this week, I thought we might look again at Luke’s nativity narrative. It is a “pastoral” account, emphasizing the shepherds and the manger. These elements draw Luke’s attention because they evoke themes from the Hebrew Bible he sees fulfilled in the birth of the Christ-child.

• • •

The manger. Luke’s deceptively simple birth narrative sets the rustic story of a baby’s birth within huge historical contexts. First, as Raymond Brown says above, the Gospel writer is weaving a tale that completes another square in the quilt of salvation history, as told by the storytellers and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Second, Luke evokes images of Caesar Augustus, the “son of god,” the “savior,” and “lord” of the world, who was acclaimed for bringing “peace on earth” through Roman power.

The contrast magnifies the strange, upside-down ways of God’s grace. As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “Nothing very glorious is suggested by the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth. But that is Luke’s manner, to show how God’s fidelity is worked out in human events even when appearances seem to deny his presence or power” (The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina). Humble people in simple settings bring about monumental events.

The shepherds. This observation applies to Luke’s inclusion of the shepherds in this narrative as well. His mention of “shepherds” evokes a remarkably complex set of Biblical reflections, from the patriarchal stories and poems in the Torah to the adventures of David, to the promises given by the prophets, such as Micah 4-5, which foretold that Judah’s salvation would be announced near Bethlehem, at Migdal Eder — the “tower of the flock” (Micah 4:8).

As you look at your creche in this Christmas season, as you delight in watching children in their bathrobes with shepherds’ crooks in their hands, as you think about the birth of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a feeding trough, thank God that he depends not upon grand political power, the exercise of power and domination, grand strategies and machinations.

No, it’s just about a couple having a baby.

In strange circumstances.

Changing the course of history.

Bringing down great rulers from their thrones.

Attracting the faithful of the land.

Bringing peace on earth.

• • •

Photo by Tejvan Pettinger at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. Bringing peace on earth.

    A peace that does not depend on political power…domination, grand strategies and machinations for its vitality or success. A peace that exists in weakness and vulnerability, and that is patient (sometimes beyond our own felt endurance) with contradiction and frustration and paradox. A peace that refuses to clobber anyone in its own name, or for its own purposes.

  2. William H. Martin Jr says

    “A peace that refuses to clobber anyone in its own name, or for its own purposes.” The opposite of which, selfish and the adversary.

    Shepherds IMHO some of the toughest men on earth at the time. David always comes to my mind when I hear this story. I know how it is to be stuck in the woods in the dark where you can’t see your hand trying to find a way. I thought then as now these were brave men. They fell to their knees as would have I. Peace, I’m finding it, more so then I thought possible. Peace to all here…..just w

    • I will continue to sing the praises of Philip Keller’s “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” in terms of seeing all that a shepherd does to tend to a flock and keep them safe. Profound book.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Having been a shepherd… If that role is the emphasis the thing that stands out to me is how banal it is. There is no drama or intrigue, essentially no excitement. A bit of crisis hear and there…. Mostly a whole lot of standing around. I doubt it is much of what people picture at Christmas – the shepherd is mostly there to protect property and manage a ridiculously stupid species.

        • William H. Martin Jr says

          I was just saying at the time Adam. David was rumored to have killed a lion and a bear. The stone walls that kept the sheep literally the shepherd was the door. I am quite certain in this day and age tending sheep would be very mundane unless you were trying to do it in Alaska where predators would probably not be afraid of a bent stick. Of course who in their right mind would carry a bent stick when an M14 is available Or an FAL.

          • William H. Martin Jr says

            It just me but Having lots of time during the day I can see David practicing with the sling shot almost nonstop just as people throw baseballs or play basketball or foot ball today. I believe everything he was doing as shepherd prepared him for what was coming. I’ve been miles back in the dark even got turned around ended up on the wrong side of a mountain when the light came. I’m sure from time to time they weren’t quite ready for dark. Managing wealth of the family was a big responsibility at the time. I’m pretty sure they were no slouches most being required to fight hand to hand. Fairly certain is was quite a different kind of life then you painted.

            • William H. Martin Jr says

              lol moderation after what I’ve read here roflmao. I only said what came to my mind and someone out usually 3 I can expect it.

              • William H. Martin Jr says

                Jesus referred to Himself as a Good Shepherd and us as sheep.( Last three words). Pretty sure he wasn’t talking about any specific mountain. Frankly this is what really had me laughing, you got find joy where you can. Just Jesus , to me the bravest man to have walked this earth said he was a good shepherd. Came as the weakest. Lion Lamb….. Nah not worth dwelling on any more but I will smile more today.

  3. Beautiful reflection.
    Peace & Joy to all!

  4. Happy Solstice to all! Up to help bring it in with meditation at 5:44 Eastern Time, tho I declined the online invitation of one group whose guided meditation included invoking some goddess I was not familiar with. But God’s blessing to all of good will who serve the light for the highest good of all concerned. This is called the beginning of winter in our culture but more realistically it is mid-winter. Just went out to feed the birdies at 7:30 and had to turn the light on, but technically the days start getting longer after today, at least for the next half year. I call that good. It’s also 26 American degrees out, a veritable heat wave after the last week or so, and might even break above freezing today. I call that good too. My main roots come by way of that Yorkshire photo, tho my grandfather was a factory worker, not a sheep herder.

    Did Jesus celebrate Christmas or even Advent? Probably not, tho he likely grew up celebrating Chanukah, which interestingly enough begins Christmas Eve this year and, like the Winter Solstice and Advent, is a celebration of light. Light seems to be breaking in on the whole world these days, even as it exposes much of the darkness we have been living under. I call that good as well. May the peace and love and light of God Most High illuminate us all heart to heart!

  5. I was raised in a rural Georgia small town by Southern Baptist hyper-fundamentalists. My father was the church choir director and while music was a part of our life for the most part we dwelled in a Fanny J Crosby purgatory. Except for Christmas. Then and only then my father would pull out a multi-LP recording of Handel’s Messiah and we played it through the Christmas season. After that the records would go back into storage until next year. (Nobody ever said as much but I gathered that there was something inappropriate about listening to Handel at any other time of the year.) After the Baptist hymnal Handel ‘s music was overwhelming. Imagine giving a starving man a piece of German chocolate cake!

    Well as I grew older I discovered there were other musics, both sacred and secular. And even though at some point along the way I had the revelation that you could listen to Handel anytime you wanted (!), nevertheless for me the Christmas season will always be ineluctably associated with the glorious music of Handel.

    • Maybe he felt about Handel the way the Scots Covanenters felt about Communion – if you gave somethong THAT good to the flock too often, they wouldn’t appreciate it as much. :-/

  6. Someth*i*ng. What the bloody hell IS it with this autocorrect?!?

  7. Burro [Mule] says

    Fr. Stephen Freeman’s latest post, I’ll Be Small For Christmas deals with this well. He takes another shot at Modernity, his (and my) favorite bogeyman, but his point his clear. At the very end he quotes the late Fr. Thomas Hopko :

    Follow the path of Christ and become small for Christmas.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko, in one of his 55 maxims, said: “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.”


    • Randy Thompson says

      Thank you for the Fr. Hopko quotes.

      I knew him, and I am very grateful indeed that I had that opportunity. A godly, wonderful man.

  8. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for this, Chaplain Mike.

    One quibble: Raymond Brown’s suggestion that we see the manger in light of Isaiah 1:3 strikes me as overly clever. I found Kenneth Bailey’s take on Jesus’ birth to be very helpful (while I’m on the subject)..

  9. after a long day
    of not much to talk about…
    look — the moon and stars

Speak Your Mind