“O Little Town of Bethlehem” caught my attention at the Christmas Eve service. This year, for the first time, I heard “O Little Town” as a song about how one particular place participated in the Christmas story. The carol describes the local conditions on the night of Jesus’s birth: The stars are silent. The people are sleeping. The streets are dark. Yet, in the middle of it all, something is happening that is relevant for all the hopes and fears of all the years.
The hymn was followed at church by Luke’s account of the Christmas story, telling about how some folks in Bethlehem responded that night. There’s a part of the story that I hadn’t noticed before. In Luke 2, an angel appears to shepherds in the region and says something like, “Good news. The Messiah is born in this town. He’s lying in a manger, wrapped in cloths.” They respond by showing up at the manger and telling the child’s parents about the angel and why they came. Luke says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Here’s what I hadn’t noticed – Luke points out that Mary treasures the shepherds’ words. Here is a mother who has already had her own conversation with an angel (Luke 1), and yet she treasures hearing the same message from a bunch of shepherds whom she’s never met before. It matters to Mary that human neighbors stop by to affirm her love for her son and confirm his importance to the world. The shepherds remind me that for every person in whom Christ is born, there is a person who needs to hear a human neighbor affirm that this person’s life is good news, God with us, that it matters to the world.