The Interruption of Christmas
Just over a hundred years ago, Christmas interrupted a world war. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1914, the battlefront of World War I came to a halt in many places. The Christmas Truce of 1914 was unplanned, and it happened spontaneously in different places across Europe. German and British soldiers who had been killing each other for five months prior — and just hours before — began singing Christmas carols and playing instruments. Hearing each other across the lines, they stopped fighting and walked across “no-man’s land” and shook hands, traded cigarettes, medals, food, buttons, and other paraphernalia. They played soccer, sang carols, and removed the wounded and dead from the battlefield — all in peace.
But it didn’t last long. Hours later both sides were back to killing each other. Soldiers on both sides were reprimanded for fraternization, and steps were taken to ensure that this never happened again. The Christmas Truce was relegated to a footnote in history, and the first world war went on to bloody infamy.
Christmas is a season of both anticipation and interruption. On that night two thousand years ago, the people of God had anticipated some word from him for four centuries. Some anticipated more than others, but by and large, people went on about with their lives not knowing that the fullness of time — what they had been waiting for — had come. The focal point of all history was at hand, yet everyone just went about their business. Censuses were taken. Rooms booked at the local inns. It was business as usual for most, but a few were interrupted by something special.
It's a story we know well, the story of the shepherds. Luke 2:8-14, ESV:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night — or guarding their flock. Perhaps it was near time for the sheep to give birth, perhaps there was some evident danger — we can only speculate the reason. What we do know is that the shepherds were out in the fields at night doing their jobs.
They were going about the work that put food on their tables when they were interrupted by something most unexpected. First, an angel stands over them. We know little about the angel’s appearance, but we do know that he was obviously something more fearsome than when our parents call their grandkids “little angels.” These shepherds were afraid. But the angel’s first words told them not to fear — that he was bringing good news. Their work that night was being interrupted for something good — good news of great joy that will be for all the people. News that their savior is now lying in a manger in the nearby city of David.
But the angel wasn’t alone. He had company, a heavenly host. And this kind of host is not like the person who’s putting on a party or welcoming you into their home. Luke’s description recalls the Hebrew term “Yahweh sabaoth,” while often translated “Lord of hosts,” it can also be rendered “Yahweh of armies.” This was no mere robed gospel choir in the sky. This was an angelic battle army. But these angels weren’t bringing a message of war on the defenseless shepherds, but a proclamation of peace — peace among those with whom he is pleased. Our sin has declared war with God, but he interrupts our war with a message of peace.
How do these interrupted shepherds respond? They go to Bethlehem with haste:
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20, ESV)
Think of what this entails. They must leave their work behind. Their flocks, which apparently can’t be left alone at night else the shepherds would be at home in bed, are likely left untended while they go to Bethlehem. The significance of this should not be lost on us today. Yes, we may get our holiday time off, but do we really leave our work behind? For the shepherds, there must have been a real risk of losing their jobs. But the arrival of Christ is significant enough to them that they leave behind their work and go to him.
The rest of the New Testament echoes this call to leave behind our work, for no work that we do will ever be good enough to end this war we have declared with God. Only his offer of permanent peace though his son can bring us the truce we need. Anything else and we will be fighting against him again in short order, just like 1914.
In Bethlehem, the shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the baby in a manger. It’s interesting that shepherds weren’t the only ones who were amazed. When they heard the news, Mary and Joseph marveled at what had happened to the shepherds. Even when they themselves had been visited by angels, and saw a miraculous pregnancy come to term, it was God’s grace to them that he brought further confirmation of his activity. The interruption of the uninvited shepherds to their impromptu maternity ward brought comfort and confirmation to this bewildered family of a newborn.
We don’t know what happened to the shepherds’ business. Did their sheep remain protected while they left? Did the angels leave a consort of super-shepherds to sheep-sit while they were gone? We’ll never know this side of heaven, but the point Luke makes is that the interruption of the birth of Jesus into their lives changed them. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they heard and saw. Remorse for the lost work wasn’t on the menu.
We have our lives interrupted by unwanted things often enough. Whether it’s our sleep interrupted by a waking child, our commute interrupted by traffic, our plans interrupted by sickness, our future interrupted by the bad behavior of another, or a visitor who shows up at the wrong time — interruption is usually unwelcome.
We need to let the birth of Jesus interrupt us. Many of us need, like the shepherds, to have our work interrupted. We need to leave our flocks for a time to see this great thing that God has done. Some of us at Christmastime need him to interrupt our anxieties or even our dread of the season. We shouldn’t operate under the illusion that everyone enjoys Christmas. Many of us need him to interrupt our despair.
We need him to interrupt our holiday. Family and gift-giving is important — it reminds us of the gift we have received, but when we celebrate each other without taking time to be interrupted by the peace offering of God in the birth of his son, our celebration will fall flat.
We need the war we’ve declared upon God to be interrupted. The truce he offers is a permanent one. We need not fear the army of heaven, because its commanding officer is himself bringing us peace. This is good news, of great joy! As we celebrate Christmas this year, let Jesus, the baby; Jesus the savior; Jesus, the king interrupt our thoughts, actions, and lives. May every breath we take bring him glory.
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.