Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst
Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 2:1-14
At the heart of Christianity, the story of our salvation, is what the Fathers called the admirabile commercium (the ‘great’, ‘wonderful’ or ‘beautiful’ exchange): He became as we are, so that we might become as he is. For the Church Fathers, this was the deepest mystery of the Incarnation.
St Augustine would proclaim on Christmas morning, “…no greater grace than what has now shone upon us from God: the only Son of God has become the Son of Man, making sons and daughters of men, sons and daughters of God.” The Greek Fathers, like Gregory of Nazianzus, were even bolder in annunciating what becoming sons and daughters of God meant: “Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.” Gods. Nothing less. We become clothed with the divinity of Christ, become god by participation in Christ’s divinity. It is what is echoed in the offertory prayer today at midnight Mass:
“…through this most holy exchange we may be found in the likeness of Christ, in whom our nature is united to you.”
At the first Christmas, God worked this wonderful exchange within the very different exchanges that happen in our world. Caesar Augustus has just imposed a census on all the world. The census was taken for tax purposes. Everyone in the world is being registered and assigned their value. The value they are to the Emperor. This is the language of commerce, of economics.
Economics deals with things that can be traded, with what can be exchanged. This is very different from the exchange involved in love. You value those you love for who they are – not for what they can do for you or what you can gain from them. Could you ever imagine a parent saying about a child, “I have six children; this one, unfortunately, didn’t turn out okay, but that’s not too bad, because I have five more”. Love means that each one is invaluable, none can be traded for another or exchanged. The only exchange a loving parent would make is in giving themselves up for the sake of their child, even for a child that others might condemn because of how they had turned out. But a world where everyone was valued, for being human, was a far cry from Caesar’s world. Nowhere in the ancient world were all human beings valued as having equal dignity. If China today says that human rights are a Western invention, they are right, in a sense. Because the idea that human beings have rights because of being human, arose in the West – through the influence of Christianity.
The census divided up the world according to the value people had. Caesar did not know your name – or who you were or what your aspirations were. Rome was set up as a pyramidal society. Your worth came from where you were in Roman society. At the top of the pyramid was Caesar, who had divinised himself. Those who were called his friends had great benefits. The lower you moved down the pyramid, the lesser the privileges you had. At the bottom of the pyramid were the poorest of the poor. They had virtually no rights. The shepherds we meet today, would have been here. They simply existed to serve the needs of those who were higher up. The lower you were, the more easily you could be given up, exchanged for something, someone more valuable. Rome’s tax came as a crushing burden, especially on the poor.
With Caesar’s edict, Joseph with Mary, fully pregnant, travel across very difficult mountainous terrain to be registered in their native town. It would have been difficult in the best of times, let alone the final stage of pregnancy. But they go, fully identified with the lowliest, moved by the powers of the world. They go in silence, but with trust in the Father’s plans and with the knowledge that Emmanuel, God is with them. Within the trading of the world, God’s plans are accomplished, as they fulfil all the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. As the world is crushed with a burden too heavy to bear, there is born one who will bear it all.
And to the shepherds, the lowliest, who had nothing to gain from Rome, comes the announcement of incredible joy. There is a saviour born for you. For you – shepherds. No one would ever give them anything. But here, God gives himself to them – and to everyone. To these, who could not afford anything, the heavens are opened and the angels come with great glory, treating them as royalty. It comes as complete gift. This is Christianity. Here, he makes known that each one of them was worthy of this exchange. Of God himself. God could have sent an angel to substitute for us in our sins. That would have been a commercial exchange. But he gave us himself. That is love. Greater than which has never appeared.
At the end of his life, Jesus would again be traded, with Caiaphas’ famous words “It is better that one man should suffer than a whole nation perish”. The love that is promised in the child at the crib, is the love that explodes on Calvary. Here, the promise is fulfilled.
Within the fallen exchanges of this world, God works out his own wonderful exchange. We instinctively drop our defences in front of the Crib. This child is not threatening. Like all children, he just wants to be loved and give of his love. Many people speak of being afraid of God. Maybe God will ask too much of them if they follow him. Maybe he will cause them to suffer and bad things might happen to them? But before the crib, we can lose these fears. The child demands nothing. And God comes, as a defenceless child, numbered among the poorest, so we know that he comes to take nothing away from us. Only to give of himself. If we can open our hearts before this child, we will also find that his promise of love is true. It will come to fullness, in Calvary, where we will find this wonderful exchange. When we don’t receive this love, we are condemned to trading whatever we have, to receive the love of this world, which never fulfils. What is it that you want to bring before this child? He comes to the lowliest, take the worst of what is in us. In turn, he give us himself, and clothe us with his divinity.