This post is part of the series “Four Hymns of Christmas”
You may have noticed by now that I like to play a game when reading the Bible, especially the gospels, called, “Who Told This Story?”
This third hymn of Christmas doesn’t look quite like the other three. For one thing, angels sing it instead of humans (Mary sings the first; Zechariah the second; and Simeon the fourth). For another, their audience is a random group of shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem. Remember, Mary sings her song to Elizabeth; Zechariah sings his to Elizabeth and the crowd gathered for John’s presentation and naming ceremony; and Simeon sings his at the same occasion for Jesus.
These are famous audiences! See all those names in that sentence? Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Simeon, Jesus. But this third song is sung to shepherds who never get a name. They’re not even really part of the story for very long. They show up in Luke 2:8 and disappear in Luke 2:20, never to be heard from again.
Of course, we know about them. Luke made these shepherds more famous than most people through all of history. But you can understand, I hope, why, when I sat down to write about this hymn, I was eager to play the game. If the shepherds were the only ones who heard the angels’ song, and they’re only around for thirteen verses, who told Luke this story? I was ready to spin up some conjecture about the story getting passed around the Bethlehem-adjacent shepherd community for the next forty or fifty years until Luke came back to start asking questions to write his history.
And then Luke went and ruined it.
It turns out the shepherds went and blabbed the whole story to Mary, which I suppose you have to expect. You’re a good Jewish shepherd, out on a warm April evening, minding your own business—and the sheep—when an angel shows up and tells you the hope of your nation, the promise of two thousand years1, has been fulfilled! Tonight! That’s exciting enough, but then the sky is full of these terrifying creatures singing the same song: “Glory to God in the highest!”
You’d want to tell someone, too.
So they tell Mary and Joseph, right there in Luke 2:17. It had to be an amazing story, even for Mary and Joseph, who had been experiencing miracles for a while now. The birth of this child is so significant that a sky full of angels sang about it to these shepherds. And why? Because Jesus, the God-man (God-child, I suppose, at this point), deserves worship. And not just of Mary and Joseph, although He surely had it. And not just of Eastern mystics, who wouldn’t be along for a while yet anyway. He deserved worship from day one, and God, through the shepherds, provided it. Led them right to Him.
I am reminded, as I speculate on what made God choose the shepherds, of Jesus’s statement thirty-three years later when some Pharisees tell Him to make the crowd in Jerusalem quiet down. He says, “Look, I can make them hush, but the Son of Man must be worshiped, so if you quiet the people, the rocks will cry out” (heavily paraphrased from Luke 19:39–40).
This theme of Creation praising the Creator with or without us is not new. Way back in Psalm 19 we read,
The heavens are telling of the glory of God
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands
So presumably, God could have just made the cows and sheep and even the manger itself cry out in praise and adoration of the brand-new Christ child. But I get the feeling that God prefers the adoration of humans. He loves us, His children, and our greatest good is recognizing and celebrating the value and worth of God. Bringing the shepherds in to worship Jesus was an act of love toward them. The fact that these were shepherds, the smelly, ignored, not-quite-outcasts of Israel made the choice even sweeter to Him, who loves the least and the lost.
Anyway, it turns out Mary agrees with me about the significance of the shepherds’ story, and Luke—good old Luke, out to ruin my game—records that, too:
And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
—Luke 2:18–19 (emphasis mine)
We no longer have to guess who told Luke this story—it was Mary, who right from the beginning was cataloguing these experiences, burning them into her memory, so that she could tell this incredible story anytime it was needed. She was in awe from the start, but she recognized from that first moment with Gabriel that this was an important story, and someone would need to tell it, and it had to be her.
The Gloria In Excelsis Deo
Before you begin, go read the Gloria In Excelsis Deo in your favorite Bible, or just click here if you prefer: Luke 2:14. Then come back; we’ll be right here.
“Gloria in excelsis Deo!” shout the angels. “Glory to God in the highest!”
I cannot begin to imagine the epicness of this event. Start here: angels are, as we keep coming back to, terrifying, even when there’s just one of them. This isn’t one angel; its “a multitude.” How many is a multitude? I envision a sky, clear of clouds and full of stars, lit up from horizon to horizon with singing angels. On another notable night, at the other end of His life, Jesus refers to “twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53). A Roman legion was 3,000–6,000 soldiers, so we’re looking at between 36,000 and 72,000 angels. Jesus was being hyperbolic, I think—wouldn’t a single angel have been absurdly more than enough?—but I’ll use that as my basis for guessing the sky was full of tens of thousands of angels.
But these aren’t normal angels2. These are “the heavenly host.” This is the army of Heaven, the supernatural, eternal warriors of God. Suddenly, my image changes. This isn’t a heavenly choir sweetly singing, “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria”3, this is the invasion force of the King of Kings, the front line of the Almighty. Despite the words of peace, I bet they sounded more like this:
Let’s talk about that peace. “On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased,” goes the hymn. Peace and war show up in odd places in the New Testament. The Jewish expectation of Messiah was for a warrior king like David who would rebel against Rome and re-establish the Kingdom of God in Israel. And God gives them a little baby. Then Jesus Himself says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) and “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Of course, when Peter tries to use a sword, Jesus rebukes him (Luke 22:49–51).
We don’t have time to unpack every piece of peace in the New Testament, but consider this: these warriors of God show up on the night of Jesus’s birth. Jesus, the meek and mild, who went to war with sin by sacrificing Himself. What if this hymn is a show of force? “Look,” says God4, “look at this army. These angels would fix sin in six seconds. But I’m not sending them to fight. No, I’m choosing a different path. I’m sending them to sing. See that child over there? The one the angel mentioned? That’s my Son, your God, your Savior, whom I choose to go to war for your sake instead of these angels. I choose peace, not a sword. After millennia of fighting, of kings fighting kings and empires warring with empires, I’m done. I will win, once and for all, and I will win on my terms, not on yours. I sent these angels to remind you that I could win by the sword, but I choose peace.”
“On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” The kind of lasting peace Joshua almost brought to the Promised Land. The kind David almost brought to Israel. This time, though, this time it will last. A man whose name is Joshua, “the Lord saves,” of the royal line of David, but who is also the Son of God, has brought peace at last.
The first peace, of Joshua, was to the remnant of Jacob, fleeing Egypt. The second peace, of David, was to the chosen nation of Israel, fighting for its life. But this final peace, of Jesus, is to the chosen people of God, without regard to race or ethnicity, ancestry or nationality, color or gender or social status or wealth.
This is the angels’ song of celebration—of triumph!—the third hymn of Christmas.
We may follow them in this way: praise God for His triumph, thank Him for choosing peace and not war, and go among the nations to tell of the coming of Christ to the least and the lonely and the lost, that they may join us in the unending hymn.
Sing with the shepherds and the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Don’t get wrapped up in the date. Here’s the rough math: we’re pretty sure David lived about 1,000 BC. The judges before him lasted about 400 years, before which were 40 years of wandering, before which were 430 years of Egypt. Jacob went down to Egypt an old man, and Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather, so you back up two long generations and end up about 2,000 years before Jesus. ↩
Not that I know what a “normal” angel is. ↩
I know you recognize this hymn; count the o’s. ↩
These words are taken from the extremely non-canonical Gospel of Jerry, my personal speculative historical fiction about the Bible. ↩