“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). This break in the gospel story, which has been soaring up to this point with all sorts of surprise and delight, will be familiar to many of us on Christmas Eve: Reality intrudes. The gifts need wrapping. The dishwasher needs loading, and the dog needs walking. The highway, filled with other drivers becoming as stressed as us, needs navigating. The day's possibility runs into necessity.
The birth of Jesus occurs amid reality. It is a time of Empire, and the Powers That Be count their subjects to control them. Mary and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem to be registered. Mary's labor, however, will not wait for the couple to find a room. She gives birth in a stable.
The birth of Jesus occurs amid reality that seems all-encompassing, and indisputable. Shepherds work the night shift, keeping watch over their flocks, like they did last evening, like they do every night. Their needs and the needs of Empire require it. This is the way things are.
Yet amid reality something else occurs. It is not a break from reality, according to the gospel. It is a revelation that the writer considers just as real: An angel appears to the shepherds and announces the birth of the Messiah in the nearby town. The shepherds decide to go at once and “see this thing that has taken place.” They find Mary and Joseph, and they behold the baby who lies in a manger.
The night shift isn't over. The shepherds return to the fields, while we merge into traffic. There is more to the story. So look and listen. Could it be that what we see and hear this evening is more than enough to stir our hearts to wonder?