On Christmas, the line between heaven and earth is blurred

The Adoration of the Shepherds, pupil of Rembrandt, 1646

The Gospel for Christmas Mass at dawn reminds us that distinctions of “sacred and profane,” of “divine and secular” are constructs of the human imagination. In Luke’s mind, God never intended the world to be so compartmentalized, and the incarnation of Christ demonstrates this. The birth of Jesus revealed that any part of creation could be a suitable dwelling place for the Almighty.


‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ (Lk 2:15)

Liturgical day
Christmas Mass at Dawn (C), Dec. 25, 2018
Readings: Is 62:11-12, Ps 97, Ti 3:4-7, Lk 2:15-20

Have you ever encountered divine grace in an unexpected place or person?

How can you increase your sensitivity to God’s presence in the world?

In subtle ways, creation continues to make Christ present today. Those of us who follow Christ and seek his return must train ourselves to encounter him every day. As we become skilled at seeking out these signs of grace, our ears may catch a hint of the angels’ song and our minds discover the great glory of God all around us.

The incarnation of Christ reminds us that the earth is sacred and that the human world we have constructed upon it can be a vehicle for holiness. God, in fact, created it to be this way, but human blindness obscured that reality. Part of the revelation that Jesus’ birth offered was a reminder that God created the universe to dwell in it with us, as the opening chapters of Genesis describe. In the incarnation, the same dust that constitutes all things gave form to the Son as well.

The incarnation of Christ reminds us that the earth is sacred and that the human world can be a vehicle for holiness.

A scholar of Luke’s Gospel, François Bovon, speaks of the “intertwining of the glorious and the lowly” in Luke’s account of the incarnation. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the line between heaven and earth is blurred. Not only do angels appear to shepherds, but they appear to shepherds who are going about their normal duties. These are not individuals on a vision quest or undergoing some kind of mystical initiation or heavenly ascent. These are shepherds on the job, doing what they normally do, but on that night, they perceived the glory of God and heard the angels’ anthem.

In another example of the intertwining of the glorious and the lowly, these shepherds become the Son’s first evangelists. Shepherds were rough characters, spending their time following their flocks through wild country beyond the comforts of settled life or Rome’s military protection. Nativity sets often depict them as gentle pastoralists, but a better modern parallel would be cowboys or bikers. These would be intimidating guests just after a birth and even more unlikely bearers of a divine message. Nevertheless, they were the ones the angels sent.

Luke does not speculate on the shepherds’ unusual sensitivity to God’s voice that night or explain what kind of amazement their message provoked. His account of the mingling of heaven and earth at the birth of Christ instead directs later generations of disciples to pay attention to the grace all around them. Jesus’ birth reminds us that any part of creation can communicate God’s presence. If we live with that expectation, we, too, will hear angels sing even as we toil. When we remember that sacred and profane are constructs of the human mind, the glory of God will shine around us. Like those shepherds who were Christ’s first evangelists, we, too, will have a message of amazement and joy for all we meet.

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