Something occurred to me the other day as I was looking at the nativity scene in my box of Christmas decorations. As I held in my hands the miniature shepherds and wisemen and Jesus-in-a-manger, I thought about how many Christmas pageants I've seen over the years - how many programs acted out by children pretending to be shepherds and sheep and choruses of angels with tinfoil halos mounted precariously over their heads.
What caught my attention was the parallel between the announcement of Jesus' birth and, years later, the announcement regarding his resurrection.
I've read and heard a zillion times over my lifetime that the first announcement of Jesus' birth was to shepherds. The bible tells us that an angel appeared to shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. The angel announced to them that Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, had been born. Thereafter a whole chorus of angels appeared in the skies above and they praised God. The shepherds, despite their fright at being surrounded by a host of heavenly beings, decided to go to Bethlehem and see this babe lying in a manger. And once they had borne witness to this birth, the bible tells us that they "spread the word concerning what had been told to them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them." (Luke 2:17).
Then, fast forward for a moment to the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, more than thirty years later. We read in the new testament that two angels appeared to Mary Magdalene and other women who had arrived at Jesus' burial tomb to anoint his body with spices. The women were terrified by the presence of the angels but, after the pronouncement that Jesus had risen, they ran back to Jesus' friends and apostles and told them what they had seen. Later, after the apostles checked out the empty tomb, Jesus himself appeared to Mary and she ran again to tell the apostles what she had seen.
So far, nothing new here. And there are obvious parallels to be made in the way that it was angels pronouncing the news on both occasions to people who were terrified, who then nonetheless went and saw for themselves that what the angels said was true and who then went out and spread the amazing news to others.
Then I thought about it some more and another parallel snagged my thoughts.
You see, when admiring those children dressed in shepherd robes in the Christmas plays, I haven't really thought about the real significance of their presence in Jesus' story. The fact is that in the days of Jesus, shepherds were at the very bottom rung on social and religious ladders. They shared a status similar to that of tax collectors and dung sweepers. They were considered untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. Religious leaders of the day maintained something of a strict caste system, and shepherds and other despised peoples factored into the most despised of that system. And the angel first announces the news of the Messiah's birth to these people? What an affront that would have been to the religious leaders of the day, who were expecting the Saviour to show up as a King!
The parallel, then, is that years later, when the angels announce Jesus' resurrection, God again chose to first present the most significant news of all time to another group of untouchables: Women. In those days, women's status and freedoms were severely limited by law and custom; they held roles of little or no authority; they were uniformly considered to be inferior to, and under the authority of, men; they were largely confined to their father's of husband's home; they were not allowed to testify in court trials because they were not considered to be trustworthy or reliable witnesses; etc etc etc.
It's this parallel that jumped out at me...so obvious, but so profound...or maybe I'm the last to have this sink in. In both the announcement of Jesus' birth and, years later, of his resurrection, the people who were the first to hear the good news from the lips of angels were the lowest of the low...the outcasts, the untouchables of society in those days. The biggest news of the ages, of all times, was announced not to kings and world leaders, not to the religious leaders of the day, but to those who comprised the bottom echelon of society.
Jesus changed everything. Took everything that was known and familiar and changed it all. He was a radical, from (literally) the beginning to the end of his life. His presence was most poignant amongst the most humble and lowly of people in society. Not only did the greatest birth of all time get announced first to bottom-of-the-rung shepherds; not only did he live life in a way that treated women in radically different ways than culture and social norms dictated (he touched them, taught them, befriended them, used terminology that treated women as equal to men, accepted women into his inner circle, expressed concern for widows, etc etc etc); but God also chose women as the means by which Jesus' resurrection was announced.
These were no accidents. Shepherds and women, the outcasts of society who were considered untrustworthy and unreliable, bore first witness to both the birth and the resurrection of Jesus because that's the way God designed his plan to be carried out. He came for those who truly needed him.
I need Him, too. I don't want to be so self sufficient in my life, so caught up in preparations for this (or any) season, so high falutin' in my outlook on life, so blind to the real reason I'm on this earth, that I forget that I need him, too.
Like I said, I've heard these things a million times. But somehow this has connected with me this year differently than it has before. This year, as I look at the nativity scene, and as I smile at those little shepherds and bleating sheep in the pageant, I don't want to lose the thought that it was a handful of those lowly shepherds, marginalized and cast out by the religious and social elite, that was chosen to break the silence of the centuries and announce the birth of a Messiah radical enough to turn the world on its end.