‘For today a saviour was born for you who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11)
I am sure I won’t be the first person to point out an ironic difference between the first Christmas and Christmas Day 2020. When Christ was born, according to Luke’s Gospel, there was a census which required people to return home to register. Yet, on Christmas Day 2020, many of us find ourselves unable to return home because of restrictions – borders between administrative regions and even nations effectively closed.
Despite the Muir clan’s best-laid plans to be together over Christmas in Scotland this year, last week’s (understandable though late) governmental decrees put paid to them and any chance of scotch eggs and pints in Newbury in the New Year for me. Thankfully, however, I have been able to join forces with my dear grandmother up here in Scotland. We are enjoying a busy schedule of watching TV (an eclectic mix of quiz shows, sport, and music-related programmes), eating, drinking, and blethering. While sorry that the Muir clan cannot be together in person this side of the border as we had planned, we are thankful that we can still connect over Zoom. We also think of those who have been far worse affected this year. 2020 has not been a normal year and the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the strangest thing of all. It might not feel like Christmas today and I imagine many will not really want to be celebrating Christmas today.
Some of us might have taken the decision to delay Christmas in some way. Its dating is, of course, rather arbitrary: there is no evidence that Jesus was born on 25th December. While the Anglican tradition to which I belong makes a great deal of Advent as preparation for Christmas in the church calendar – I believe meaningfully – other venerable traditions hardly celebrate Christmas at all. On one level, the timing of Christmas does not really matter.
What matters most, however, is that in some way, far beyond our comprehension, the Son of God entered the world through a young virgin girl. It was an event that changed history and it took place on some day around 2020 years ago. So, when the angel addresses the shepherds, he announces that: ‘Today a saviour was born for you who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:11). For the shepherds, the birth on Christmas happened on their today, whenever that was.
I would gently submit that ‘today’ is one of the most important words in the Bible. The coming of Christ as an expression of the power and kindness of God still translates into our present, our today, enhancing it. As many have recognised, Christ’s incarnation is not an event that can be cancelled: we tend to celebrate it on 25th December; but the reality continues to echo through time. On account of events of the past year and social-distancing measures that are making gatherings so difficult, hearing the music in the same way is challenging; but a symphony beyond any conducted by Rutter or Rieu still reverberates in creation because God became human. That melodious strain is still being played despite present earthly strains and pains.
At the first Christmas, such a strain was sung by an army of angels. Before that chorus appeared, however, a single angel delivered a wondrous message to an unlikely group: some shepherds in Bethlehem. As this happened, we read of the glory of the Lord shining around them: the weighty presence of the divine. These humble shepherds initially experience a great fear, but the angel reassures them with a gospel proclamation of great joy. This good news will extend from and beyond the shepherds to every single people group through the arrival of a Saviour: the Messiah, the Lord. In the darkness of that night, there was joy and wonder.
Our emotions and feelings change from day to day. Some days they simply defeat us; other days, often through the help of divine and human sources, we can look past them. We never know what became of the shepherds: they saw something miraculous but that they never experienced doubt and sadness again is unlikely. Today we might find it difficult to sense the same glory and joy that the shepherds experienced; but such glory and joy are still present because Christ came into the world and that event cannot be reversed and it was ultimately out of love for us: to restore us to God once more.
So, as one carol says in building on Luke:
Today, Christ was born … today the righteous rejoice, saying: “Glory to God in the highest, Alleluia.”
I hope and pray that you may experience some of the joy and presence of that first Christmas today, wherever you may find yourselves.
 As with most things on this blog, this is a devotional piece rather than an academic one. For anyone looking for an even-handed treatment of some of the historical issues in Luke 2, see Prof. Helen Bond’s Bible Odyssey article: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/main-articles/nativity-luke-2120.
 Language of ‘today’ appears over 200 times in the Bible. If I can get my act together in the New Year, I might even put together a series of some of the most significant moments where ‘today’ features. One of these is Psalm 95:7, ‘Today if you hear his voice…’, which is picked up by the writer of Hebrews in chapters 3–4. The Word still speaks us into our today.
 For the Latinists and choristers: hodie Christus natus est… hodie exsultant iusti, dicentes: Gloria in excelsis Deo, alleluia. Latin always sounds better.
 As you read this, there is a fair chance that I’ll be nibbling through the generous supply of chipolatas that were acquired before last Saturday’s governmental decrees.