“And the glory of the Lord shone around them…”
I always enjoy it when I sit down to read the Christmas story, and find my mind engaged by some word or phrase that I have never really pondered before.
Which is what happened, a few weeks ago, when I sat down to re-read this old story from Luke 2 in preparation for tonight’s service.
The scene is well known to us – the shepherds were out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Perhaps a little bit bored, but nonetheless doing their job, going through the motions, in all likelihood a bit tired from being on the night watch.
But then, in the middle of that dark night, as the text states, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
It was that last little phrase made me pause. “…and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
And I found myself thinking about the fact that I had never really thought much about what was this “glory of the Lord” that shone around them? What did the shepherds see? What did they experience? What is this ancient storyteller trying to convey with that little phrase that we so often skip over without even so much as a thought?
After noticing that phrase, I found myself paying a bit more attention, this year, to how often the word “glory” is woven through the stories and readings of Christmas.
When the angels cry out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”
Or when we read, in the first chapter of John, that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…”
Or in the opening verses of the letter to the Hebrews state, when we read that Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Glory, glory, glory. But what is it? What do the biblical authors intend for us to see, and imagine, and understand, with all of their references to this thing called “glory”?
Lest we think that it is just a word that was found in these ancient biblical stories, it can be good to remember that it is a word that has been woven through the history of spirituality for thousands of years. The hymns of our faith invite us to sing about the “God of grace and God of glory”, we pray the word “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory”, we even assert that our identity, as human beings, is deeply connected with this idea of the glory of God, not least in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s assertion that the main goal of life – or what they termed the“chief end” of humanity — is to glorify and enjoy God forever.
Some of you might remember a television show called “In Search of Man Alive” which was hosted by Roy Bonisteel and which ran for many years on CBC Television. The show documented the lives and experiences of a range of remarkable women and men, and was a long running and well regarded show. But what was not always known was that the title of the show was based on a paraphrase of a passage from a second century Christian theologian, often known as St. Irenaeus, who wrote that “the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God” – a saying which is often shortened to “the glory of God is in man fully alive.” The glory of God is in man fully alive. Somehow, Irenaeus, and Roy Bonisteel, and so many through the centuries, have had a sense that a human life, when lived in fullness and as it lives toward its true potential, is truly a glorious reality to behold.
Glory, glory, glory.
The writer C.S. Lewis – he of Narnia fame — in an essay entitled “The Weight of Glory” tried to explore the question of what we mean when we use the word glory. Lewis’ initial attempt to define it reveals the complexity that he confronted, as he wrote, “Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather heaven. As for the second [that being luminosity], who wishes to become a kind of living electric bulb?” (p. 36).
Upon first reading the story of the shepherds seeing the glory of the Lord shining around them, we might assume that it is this second meaning – that of some glowing, luminescent, bright light that might first come to our imaginations. But really, was that all that the author was trying to convey? That God’s glory was just some big light?
Perhaps we might consider, instead, what any one of us actually means when we speak of things being “glorious” or “filled with glory” in our own lived experiences. Such experiences always contain something more than a bright light.
Perhaps think back over your own experiences in the past year – which of the moments that you have lived could best be described as glorious?
Did you catch sight of the astounding and awe-inspiring colours of a sunset on a beautiful summer evening, as you just stood quietly and tried to take in the indescribable beauty before the sun went down? Glorious.
Or perhaps you stared up into the canopy of stars above your head on a clear night, and looked out into the infinite reaches of a space so immense that the human imagination cannot fully grasp its enormity. Glorious.
Or perhaps you held a tiny child in your arms and found yourself entranced and amazed by the sheer beauty of a tiny, perfectly formed little being. Glorious.
Or perhaps you heard some stirring passage from a beloved piece of music, and it was as if your breath was taken away until the sounds of the instruments faded away. Glorious.
Such glory, such glorious moments – are so much more than just some big bright light.
So what, then, is glory, in this deeper, spiritual sense?
Lewis suggested that “glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things.” (p. 41). To me, at least, that last phrase, in particular, is wonderful – glory is a moment when we feel as if we are welcomed into the heart of things.
Such glorious experiences always lead us to want to go beyond mere observation. Lewis wrote, “we do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it” (p. 42).
I wonder if that is close to the sense of what the ancient storyteller was trying to convey with this little phrase – and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Somehow, in the middle of that fateful night, so long ago, those frightened, surprised shepherds were drawn into a moment of complete wonder, they experienced a sense of divine acceptance, they were bathed in a wondrous beauty, they were welcomed into the heart of all things.
The glory of the Lord shone around them.
And what was the reason for this remarkable moment, this wondrous experience?
It happened because a child was being born in Bethlehem.
And because of the birth of that child in Bethlehem, proclaimed the angel, that wondrous glory, that divine acceptance, that breathtaking beauty would be on earth as it was in heaven, and it would not only be for them – rather, it would lead to peace and good will towards all.
The glory of the Lord that shone around them would be the very same glory that filled the heavens above and that would create the conditions for peace on earth.
And the good news is that what happened on that night, so long ago, is precisely what is offered to each and every one of us because of that birth.
We, like the shepherds, often find ourselves in the middle of our own dark nights, going through the motions, doing what we do. And yet, if we keep our eyes open, and our hearts attuned, we are invited to see the glory that still shines, bathing us in the beauty of it all, sweeping us away with wonder, welcoming us into the heart of all things, assuring us that we are known by the One who is love, inviting us to rest in the knowledge that we are accepted and received and on good terms with God.
I wish, somehow, that mere words could encapsulate and convey that wondrous glory into each and every one of your lives. But human words always fail.
Fortunately, for all of us, that child was the Word that could help us to catch sight of that glory, that Word that would seek each one of us out, that Word that continues to invite each one of us into the glory, that Word that calls to us and leads us from observers into participants.
And also that inspires us to carry that glory, that vision, that sense of acceptance and wonder and grace and awe and beauty, out into this world. Just as the shepherds ran to find the Christ child after that glory shone around them, so too did they go from the manger stall out into the world, as the text states, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”
And their message continues to go out – the birth of the child signaled good and transforming news in their lives, and to the very ends of the earth.
May it be our prayer that we too, will catch sight of that wondrous glory, and live our lives glorifying and praising the One who has been born among us, whose peace is for the world, whose good will is extended to all, and whose love invites each and every one of us to be fully alive, glorifying and enjoying God forever.