Christmas Eve, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Lk. 2:14).

The Irish have an expression: a “thin place,” a particular geographic space where heaven and earth are closer than usual, where one can pierce the veil of sense and sight and see a reality that usually cannot be perceived. Ireland abounds in such places, or so the Irish say: places where you can get a glimpse of heaven on earth because the boundary between the two is blurred. Perhaps you know of such a place in your own life: a place of such clarity that unseen realities can be seen; a place where the invisible becomes visible, and one can almost reach out and grasp it.

Our Gospel tonight recounts such a place: Bethlehem of Judea in the time of Caesar Augustus, under Quirinius the governor of Syria. According to the story, shepherds living rough in a nearby field, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk. 2:8), suddenly encounter an angel with a message. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:10-12). They not only hear the message, but they see the glory of the Lord, and a host of angels praising God.

That’s the thin place: where invisible realities like the angel host become visible, here and now, and an unseen glory can almost be grasped. When the angels return to heaven, the shepherds respond to the message. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk. 2:15). The shepherds follow the lead, all the way to the thin place where God will be encountered. What they find, of course, is not so much a place as a person: God’s Messiah, the King, the Savior of the world. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the story of Jesus Christ, we find the juxtaposition of heaven and earth, a bringing together of things that are normally kept rigidly apart: a characteristic of the thin place, which brings distant things close. The humble shepherds; the heavenly angels. Light in the midst of darkness. The king of the universe who is born a child in a manger. The Christmas story is a study in contrasts, of God and humankind, now brought together in one Person.

This study in contrasts is a strong note in Christianity from the start. A letter by an unknown Christian writer of the second century put it this way: “God himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us – the holy one for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.” A study in contrasts. The writer goes on to exclaim, “O sweetest exchange! O unfathomable work of God! O blessings beyond expectation!” (Epistle to Diognetus, 9). In Jesus Christ, heaven is not just glimpsed but grasped, in an exchange that brings heaven and earth together, and reconciles humanity to God.

In Jesus Christ, we find God’s “thin place,” now available not just in Bethlehem but everywhere; not just to shepherds or to Mary and Joseph but to everyone who believes in him. There are unseen realities all around us: of grace and forgiveness for the broken and sinful; of a new beginning for the weary and anxious; of deep healing for the waste places of the world. We cannot achieve these things by ourselves. The wisdom of this world tells us that these things are impossible and unreal, but they’re not. Shepherds saw them long ago. We see them tonight, in the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee