LUKE CHAPTER 2 (Complete Jewish Bible CJB)
In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, 9 when an angel of The Lord appeared to them, and the splendour of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified; 10 but the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. 11 This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 Here is how you will know: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.” 13 Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising God:
14 “In the highest heaven, glory to God!
And on earth, peace among people of good will!”
15 No sooner had the angels left them and gone back into heaven than the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go over to Beit-Lechem and see this thing that has happened, that the Lord has told us about.” 16 Hurrying off, they came and found Miryam and Yosef, and the baby lying in the feeding trough. 17 Upon seeing this, they made known what they had been told about this child; 18 and all who heard were amazed by what the shepherds said to them. 19 Miryam treasured all these things and kept mulling them over in her heart. 20 Meanwhile, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen; it had been just as they had been told.
The first point to make is that there is nothing in the CJB translation or indeed in Luke’s skilful Greek to match the incomparable prose of the KJV:
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And Lo….”
Generations of English speakers have understood the wonder of Jesus’ birth by listening as the grammar and syntax of the KJV puts them in the position of children listening to a loved story. “And there were…..in the same country………shepherds……abiding in the fields…….keeping watch over their flocks by night. AND LO! …..the angel of the Lord came upon them…” The child who has heard the story before, murmurs along with the reader, insisting that not a single precious detail should be missing, for this is God’s story, which has become the child’s story, and every time it is read, the world is made perfect, while it lasts.
Certainly Luke intended that this part of his story should link his readers not only with the deepest expectations of the Jewish faith but also with something more universal symbolised by shepherds, sheep, night and the sudden glory of God. So the deepest longing satisfied by he story is not the Jewish longing for a Messiah, but the longing of the reader that poor, unimportant working people, even, we might say, just poor human creatures united with animals on the ordinary earth, can be the chosen witnesses of a new dawn for the world.
The vocabulary of Jewish revelation, the angel or messenger (who is never described); the glory or sh’kinah of the Lord ( which accompanied Israel on its exodus); the good news (which starts off as news of military victory and becomes the prophetic phrase for God’s liberation of his people from exile); the town of David (from whose descendants the Messiah will come); the deliver or saviour ( a title used for God in the Jewish bible and for those “raised up” by God to liberate his people); Messiah (the longed for human being inspired by God to bring his justice to the world) and the Lord (used by the first translators of the Hebrew bible into Greek to render the divine name YHWH) – all these are shifted towards a more universal meaning, by two devices:
a) the sign that the child will be wrapped in ordinary cloth and laid in a feeding trough
b) the angelic song which emphasises God….earth…..humanity
Together these emphasise the inclusion of all even the poorest, in God’s universal embrace.
The words of the shepherds to each other dramatize the possibility that they might not have gone to Beit-lechem; but in fact decide to take responsibility for the strange announcement and become bearers of the “good news” to Mary and Joseph and the bystanders. They do not simply find the promised child in the feeding trough but also his parents who are therefore not sidelined now that the messiah has been born; but honoured as his parents.
The bystanders are said to be “amazed” which is the gospel word for the reaction of the crowds to miracles, whereas Mary “treasures” and “mulls them over” words which indicate a faithful reception of God’s truths and commandments.
The section ends with God’s gift to humanity being recognised and praised by the representatives of humanity-without-status, the shepherds. The divine initiative has gained a human response.
This commentary is an inadequate way of saying that as I read this story Luke wants me to take it and all his gospel, not as mere salvation history, but as the everlasting story of my life and the life of the world, as the carol writer knew:
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given/ so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven/ no ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin/ where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Yes, meek souls, not arrogant, violent, careless, oppressive, self-centred souls- not even, indeed, saved souls- but meek souls who know that their crying need for justice and goodness is shared by all their brothers and sisters and by the living creatures of the earth. Amen.
(Both paintings by Murillo)