One of the ways, it seems, that God gets particular satisfaction is pouring out his breathtaking beauty in the unlikeliest of places. Consider the absurd beauty of the Aurora Borealis, which only a tiny fraction of the world’s population has ever beheld. Consider places of remote and stunning beauty that only a few humans have ever witnessed: caves, Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, the depths of the ocean. Or things that no human has ever seen in person, such as the Sombrero galaxy or interstellar clouds that can be seen from the edge of the Milky Way. God delights in putting his glory on display for small audiences.
There was an audience who beheld the glory of God in a way we can scarcely imagine the night of Jesus’s birth.
Picture it: you’re a first century Jewish shepherd. Like a modern day trucker or an early American cowboy, yours is a life of solitude. Your companionship is with your fellow shepherds, conversation shared over meals and tea. And like you, they have been shaped by quiet. The rocky and hilly Judean desert is laid out in front of you. Silence blankets the familiar landscape, interrupted only by the soft bleating of the slumbering herd behind you.
And then, suddenly, the heavens pull back like the curtain of a stage and a fearsome angelic warrior of the Lord appears. You gasp in fear. Your heart stops. A light pierces the darkness, followed by a voice so powerful, so full, it’s hard to even call it a voice: “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.”[i]
And then, it is as though the curtain of heaven is ripped back fully and the full choir of these terrifying beautiful creatures are revealed; their voices are delicate and thunderous at the same time. How many are there? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? Who can tell? A symphony is played out as they sing, your chest vibrating with the bass of their voices, your hair standing on end with the soprano harmonies.
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
The glory of the heavenly choir! The music of heaven! Who has heard such things? And yet God chooses to display this beauty, this glory, this glimpse of the throne of God, not to kings and their courts, not to crowds, but to a few Jewish shepherds.
Is not this ludicrous generosity a perfect demonstration of the scandalous gift of Jesus? The infinite God arrives in a lowly cattle stall. God’s very Son is given to us, his enemies. Of all people, the angel’s Christmas song is for you! It’s for me.
O Holy Night is a rich retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus. What is your favorite version of the song? One of my favorites is Al Green’s.