In the Flesh
ore than half my adult life was spent in the Los Angeles area. Visitors to the City of the Angels love to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Embedded in the sidewalk are brass-bordered cement stars bearing the names of celebrities from film, radio, television, and recording. Tourists’s noses are pointed down and their eyes are fixed on the sidewalk anxious to locate their favorite celebrity’s star.
Actual celebrity sightings are also a favorite pastime of Angelinos and visitors alike. It is not unusual to hear excited office chatter about seeing movie stars “in the flesh” at the supermarket, in a local restaurant, or just walking down the street. It seems to be part of human makeup to be thrilled by close encounters with the rich, the glamorous, the famous, and the powerful.
Two thousand years ago, a disheveled crew of shepherds were invited to one of the greatest celebrity sightings of all time.
Under a starlit dome of sky, these shepherds were doing what shepherds do—watching the flock of sheep, keeping the flock safe from predators, and preventing one or the other sheep from wandering off. Their routine was interrupted by a heavenly voice telling them to head off to Bethlehem and a chorus of angels singing “Glory to God!”
Without questioning their vision, the shepherds were eager to see what was happening in Bethlehem. Dogs and sheep and shepherds toddled off to a crude hut built to shelter farm animals. There, the group met the Savior of the world in the flesh lying on a bed of straw in a manger used for feeding livestock.
Every time I hear that story read, I am struck by the contrast between our worship of fame and fortune and the star sighting those shepherds had that evening. They saw God’s only Son as a weak and dependent baby born in the poorest of circumstances.
They knew at that moment, as only simple, honest people do, that not all kings dwell in palaces or wear robes of gold cloth. Before them was a king wrapped in a simple winding cloth. The scene of the shepherds at the crèche conveys to all of us the message that greatness does not drive around in limousines. True power can be found in helplessness. Real riches can be unearthed in poverty. And salvation can be held in the palm of the tiniest hand.
The shepherds’ night began by looking up at the magnificence of the heavens, but it ended with them looking down into the face of a child. The night held the glory of an
angelic chorus, but the true symphony was the lowing of cattle whose breath kept a tiny baby and his parents warm on a chilly night.
This Christmas, we can all have a sighting of God in the flesh if we look in the right place. The “peace on earth” message of the first Christmas begins within human hearts—yours and mine. What the shepherds saw we, too, will see when we take off our blinders and recognize salvation etched on each human face.
We make merry on Christmas because of the hope and promise found in the Creator of heaven and earth who stripped off all vestiges of divinity, became flesh, and joined us in our struggles, in our fears, in our longings, and on our journey.
At Midnight Mass we hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah and know that his words are coming true again if only we have the hearts of those shepherds whose “walk of fame” from the fields to the manger gave them the chance to be the first to see salvation in the flesh.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.