That first line of the gospel for the Mass at Midnight — "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled" – captures the ethos of this historical moment. When the most powerful man in the world says : "Jump !", the world can only say : "How high ?" No resistance is possible, especially not from poor people living in an occupied country. And so, like many of his neighbors, perhaps, Joseph goes out to the byre to coax the donkey to accept the saddle cloth and the halter, while Mary packs up some food and clothing. Then together they set out on the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, "because he was of the house and family of David." When power talks, poverty walks.
And so they walk, heading down south to Bethlehem, where nothing much has happened since David’s day, almost a thousand years earlier. The prophet Micah had referred to it, as Herod and the Magi would discover, but even Micah had noted that it was "too small to be among the clans of Judah" when he foretold that "from you shall come forth [for me] one who is to be ruler in Israel" (Mic 5 : 1).
Arriving at the little city itself, they encounter the "No Vacancy" signs and have to take shelter in a place where animals are fed. "While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn."
Up to this point, everything in this story insists on one fact known to everyone : "power talks, poverty walks." Power, in the form of the Roman emperor, his governor and his army, has decreed that a young couple leave their home at just the worst time of the woman’s pregnancy. Power demands to be obeyed in this as in all other matters. Once they arrive to enroll in the census, however, Power is indifferent about where they stay or how ; if the woman labors to give birth in a barn surrounded by some animals and attended only by her husband – what of it ? Nobodies mean nothing to Power once they’ve served Power’s purpose.
The next verse switches from the baby in the manger to "shepherds living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock," but the focus on unimportant people continues. Living rough out in the countryside, shepherds are even lower on the social ladder than Mary and Joseph, since they have neither the ability nor the motivation to keep the Law properly.
Then, "suddenly," everything changes : "The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them." The angel speaks to these nobodies as if they were somebody : "Do not be afraid ; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born to you who is Christ the Lord." A savior born to. . .them ? Yes. The angel even tells them how to recognize this savior – who turns out to be yet another nobody : "an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." What will Power say to this ? (If Power deigns to notice, that is.) Intense light and joyful noise follow as these ragged men – and we, too – witness "a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying : ’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’"
”Glory to God in the highest !" As the shepherds set off for Bethlehem early in the morning, let’s hasten with them, hasten toward the powerless baby who is real Power. This Power wills to empty itself of all power, to join its creatures in the most humble way possible. This Power "casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty." This Power changes "what everyone knows" about power and turns it into Love.
At the start of our gospel, we saw how Power talked and the poor walked ; we saw how that worldly Power used words to create fear and obedience, a situation hardly unique to first century Palestine, unfortunately. But this story tells us something new about Power, offers us some hope even as we sit in so much darkness of our own making. At the end of this story, we see that we and the shepherds are visiting a Power that is the Word itself. This Word speaks Itself, offering "peace to those on whom his favor rests." Our weary world longs for this word just as much today as it did on that first Christmas. May we hear it tonight as we gather with all the other nobodies to adore our Savior, the Word-with-Us. Amen.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA
Worcester - USA