By Michelle Francl-Donnay
The angel said, “Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host. – Lk. 2:10-13a
Luke reports that the shepherds with their flocks outside of Bethlehem were terrified by their angelic visitor that first Christmas night. I’m left wondering what everyone else within range thought. I can’t imagine that the heavenly host singing glorious praises to God that night were particularly quiet. Sound carries a long way in the country at night, and someone besides the shepherds must have been awake – a mother with a hungry baby of her own, perhaps. What did they think was going on?
It’s certainly possible that this was just another of the miracles of that night, that only the shepherds could hear the triumphant chorus, but I’m not so sure.
A few weeks ago, I saw a video (tinyurl.com/ybl3evy) of an improvisational theater group staging a performance in the produce aisle of a Brooklyn grocery store. It was the middle of the afternoon and, unlike Bethlehem in the depths of the night, it was crowded when a young man suddenly began serenading a pineapple. The rest of the troupe steps out from the shoppers, and they sing and dance their way through the fruits and vegetables. It’s certainly not a throng, and more Broadway than angelic in tone, but it’s definitely a visitation. And not everyone is quite sure what to make of it.
I found myself watching not the performers, but their accidental audience. The young boy who looks like he might indeed be seeing angels. The middle aged guy in a grey sweatshirt who doesn’t quite know what to make of this, he watches, but never smiles, and in the end fills his bag with apples and goes. The woman who is swaying to the music and smiling ear to ear, trying to hold onto the experience by filming it with her cell phone. The older man who pushes his cart right between the performers, never looking to one side or the other. And I wonder if I am seeing the reactions of the inhabitants of Bethlehem on that night so long ago.
All that overflowing joy, in such an odd spot, how could you walk through the midst and never seem to see it? How could you be awake in Bethlehem and not hear strains of “Glory to God in the highest?” I wonder how often I am uncomfortable when I run into joy in unexpected places; how often I try not to look or listen and just hurry on, lest I be drawn into something I can’t control. Thinking about the angels in Bethlehem’s sky and the man plowing ahead with his shopping, I have an inkling about what I might be missing.
The 19th century French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy called joy “the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” If I pass on those odd encounters with joy, perhaps what I’m turning away from is the chance to catch a glimpse of God in our midst. It might be safe to contemplate God made flesh in a manger 2,000 years in the past, but daring an encounter with God here and now? Such an encounter is unlikely to leave me undisturbed, able to carry on with my grocery shopping – or my life – quite as planned.
This Christmas I resolve to listen more closely for joyful choruses breaking out in offbeat places. I’ll try not to scurry past, eyes averted, but instead to stop and stand in awe and wonder – ready for joy, ready to greet the God that is present among us.
Lord our God, with the birth of your Son, your glory breaks on the world. Through the night hours of the darkened earth, we your people watch for the coming of your promised Son. As we wait, give us a foretaste of the joy that you will grant us when the fullness of his glory has filled the earth, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen. – Opening Prayer for Mass at Midnight, Christmas
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.