When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The angels left the shepherds in the field. That, in itself, was rather astounding.
Ever since the Israelites left Egypt, God interacted with them in prescribed ways. The Tent of Meeting was built according to God’s intensely detailed instructions, the worship leaders were chosen only from one tribe of the 12, and only the descendants of one particular man were allowed to be priests. To enter the Tent of Meeting, and later the Temple, each person had to follow strict rules or go through time-consuming rituals to become ceremonially clean. Even then, the most sacred space – The Holy of Holies – was off limits to all but one person in the whole nation. Encounters with God were not for ordinary people.
If the average Israelite didn’t expect to meet God, it was even less likely for shepherds. Shepherds were by the nature of their jobs unclean. Daily they touched blood and dead animals. They didn’t have the freedom to take a week off to follow through on purification rituals—there was no one else to take care of the sheep. God lived in the Temple; shepherds weren’t allowed in. Encounters with God were not for shepherds.
There were certainly exceptions. A prophet could come from anywhere, and any walk of life. David, once a shepherd, ended up King of Israel. These people were called under extraordinary or even miraculous circumstances. And then, they were called away from their ordinary lives into exceptional service. Encounters with God were not for people who stayed in the field.
This time, however, the angels brought a message to the shepherds from God, and then left them in the field.
The shepherds hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger. They saw Emmanuel – God with Us – and ran off to spread the word. “God is with us, all of us, out here, even in the dirty animal stall, away from the glitter and glory of the holy places. God is here, with us.”
Then the shepherds returned to their daily lives, tending the same sheep in the same fields. But they returned rejoicing, glorifying and praising God-With-Us, who could now be encountered – even out here in the field.
Lessons and Carols
For a century, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge has lead the world in retelling the Christmas story. Their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who had just been appointed Dean of King’s at age 34 after being an army chaplain. That experience convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship.
A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City.” The service was first broadcast in 1928, and with the exception of 1930, has been broadcast annually. The broadcast even occurred during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel. Sometime in the early 1930s, the BBC began broadcasting the service on the World Service.
Here at Westminster, we will offer this traditional service at 8 PM on Christmas Eve. If you cannot be with us, visit the King’s College page where you can read more about the service, peruse the service leaflet, and listen to this year’s recording.
Christmas Eve – The Christ Candle
We have watched. We have waited; in hope, for peace, in joy, with love! Now our waiting is nearly over! We light the fifth candle, the Christ Candle, on Christmas Eve because Jesus Christ, the true light of the world, has come. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!” (John 8:12)
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
(Phillips Brooks, 1867)
As we celebrate the birth of Christ in Alexandria, part of our Westminster family is celebrating on the other side of the world. Founded in 2004 by the late Henri Rush of Westminster and Reverend Stephen Chege of Moi’s Bridge in Kenya, the United Orphanage and Academy (UOA) houses approximately 50 vulnerable children at its facility in Moi’s Bridge. The facility also includes a K-8 Academy, which serves about 150 students. In addition, living expenses and tuition are provided for UOA orphans in college or university. Westminster provides the majority of funding for the project and works closely with valued partners at Old Presbyterian Meeting House and Lewinsville Presbyterian Church to support the ministry.
Over the years, members of all three congregations have traveled to Moi’s Bridge to meet the children and the Chege family. It is an experience that is memorable and rewarding! Participants built buildings, taught school classes, cooked meals, worshiped in local churches, established relationships, and played a lot of soccer with the children. Recent projects include a new water system to bring running water to the kitchen and bathrooms, and a new school bus.
UOA continues to prepare children well for the future. It is a place where males and females receive equivalent educations and children from all African tribes are welcome. The children do very well on the national exams each year and most go on to secondary school and then college or university.
The first children housed at UOA are now college graduates with careers, who come back to UOA when they can. It is incredible to speak with these bright, confident adults that Henri Rush and Reverend Chege reached out to when they were just vulnerable children all those years ago.
Watch and Pray
As part of your Advent devotions, watch the following video of the children at UOA. When the children sing, “We are happy to receive you,” hear in their voices the welcome offered by the faithful to the living Christ, whose birth we will soon celebrate and in whose life we continue to grow.
Consider participating in a future trip or supporting the orphanage in prayer.