This fall, I learned about an “if/then” code from an instructor I’ve almost certainly referenced on this website before. Basically, he explained, one of the most basic kinds of computer code instructs a machine to react to a certain event in a specific way every time that machine’s sensors encounter said event. The problem with these codes is that they’re basic: Without layers of situational awareness, the codes can only respond to stimuli in a single specific way, and modern devices are almost never useful unless their rules can be bent to fit the spirit behind the rules. (If a security system, for example, can only ever react to a door being opened by blaring bloody murder, it’s entirely possible that you’ll become convinced that every one of its alarms are false.) If they know how to use — and except — these codes, he explained, “if/then” can be one of the handiest tools in a keyboard tinkerer’s toolbox. But if the means by which they can be limited are unclear, and users can’t modify these codes to make room for special circumstances, “if/then” can be worse than useless — it can be an obstacle to making proper programs.
Quoth an old Cornish hymn, “The first Noel the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.” If you know the Christmas story, you probably know where this is headed — despised, downtrodden shepherds marooned on the outskirts of Bethlehem are understood to be the first to have heard of Jesus Christ’s birth. Venturing into the city, they find the freshborn Lord and joyously proclaim their discovery to townspeople who can’t help but wonder, Why did God speak to… them?
There’s some controversy over whether shepherds were actually outcasts, or just priests tasked with preparing Passover sacrifices. (Biblical scholars are split, not at all evenly, on their exact social position.) But there is no controversy over whether the shepherds would have been allowed to enter the congregation of the righteous for worship services: Shepherding involves contact with blood, feces, and carcasses wild and domestic. Jewish law considers all three — rightfully, one might argue — unclean. So, shepherds, outcasts or not, wouldn’t have been allowed to worship in Judea’s temples or synagogues. Apropos of that, God brings the party to them, even serenading them with an angelic chorus of “glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” Armed with the knowledge of better days ahead, the shepherds bring the party to everyone else.
By the time the shepherds set foot in the barn where Christ was born, you could argue that they’re breaking the rules of the religious road. Instead of just experiencing God in the context of a building, or in the words ascribed to Him, they are — at least by the Christian interpretation — entering his literal, physical presence. St. Luke’s account of their visit, which is the only one we’ve got, doesn’t say anything about a mass trip to the washbasin. (Even if it did, such a cleanup wouldn’t have been enough to declare the shepherds ceremonially clean.) But the biblical concepts of “purity” and “cleanliness” aren’t ends unto themselves; they’re supposed to have a larger point.
In modern, Western hemispheric, conservative Christianity, “purity” doesn’t have much to do with animal blood. Purity, if you grew up like me, is mostly about sex. On the one hand, this is exactly what I’m talking about; to be impure is to have some blemish that makes you unfit to experience divinity. (In modern evangelicalism’s case, impurity was pretty much a blanket slander of normal sexual behavior; never mind that, at least right now.) But the Anglican priestess Amy Peterson points out that purity has little to do with empirical reality at all. Citing studies of bugs in Coke cans, spittle in cups, and — please try to bear with me here — hair in soup, Peterson points out, “To be impure is to be in the wrong place.” Almost nothing is quite unclean when it exists where we’re used to seeing it.
The Torah’s idea of cleanliness and uncleanliness is both a mirror of our own idiosyncrasies and a window into God’s demands. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you’re unfamiliar with the churchgoing experience. I won’t be doing much to illuminate it here, except to say this: To go to church, or to synagogue, or into a temple, is to enter a plane of existence beyond ourselves that we don’t fully understand. We’ve already conceded as much by marking out a space for worship in the first place. The rules of that engagement, whether descending from God or ascending from us, can’t capture the vastness of that transmission; were they made to even try? Or are they really a means to an end — getting humans to take God’s divine domain seriously — inspiring and codifying reverence, if you will?
That question is, arguably, at the center of the controversy described in The New York Times over the weekend. In “O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on Sunday,” the Times’ Ruth Graham draws a bead on something that’s happening in real time. Large numbers of Protestant churches, Graham reports, are canceling their services this Christmas. The case for these cancellations is twofold: First, a Christmas gathering isn’t on the Protestant calendar when the holiday falls on a Sunday, since a Christmas Eve service is usually on the menu. Second, the extra labor isn’t worth the extra day’s attendance. Protestant churches can’t compete with the allure of staying home for the holidays, this argument goes, so the deployment of pastors, ushers, and other figures to staff such a sparse spiritual symposium has all the looks of a total waste.
If this sounds like a value judgment from McKinsey’s rather than a mission from on high, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Yes, there certainly is some sense that an NBA-style load management plan would be the best way to care for pastors and communities, especially in the 90-person Lutheran church described in the Times. But you have to admit: It appears that the greater sense is that the glories of worship on Christmas morning — standard operating procedure amongst the so-called “high churches” — can’t compete with the glories of sustained growth, namely (no offense) in the megachurches and megachurch-inspired operations that Graham also covers. If churches are to survive, the larger churches seem to concede, they’ll do so with the understanding that the offering of closeness to God has to take a backseat to more quantifiable concerns. O, come, indeed, just not when your attendance exerts downward pressure on our averages.
While scholars are trying to figure out just how poor they really were, I’ll point out the one thing the shepherds weren’t short on. They walked into the city of Bethlehem, so small and so sardine-packed that Mary’s fiance couldn’t find an inn for her to give birth in, with extraordinary expectations, and found them filled by a barnyard maternity ward. The rapturous chorus of the angels was the very sign of what the shepherds were seeking: When Bethlehem town offered only an exhausted mother and a baby in swaddling clothes, the shepherds’ response wasn’t the output-input system humans often rely upon when the highest of things fall away. Instead, our protagonists are filled with wonder — not at the humbleness of the Lord’s presentation, but that they’ve seen Him at all. (Even the villagers at Bethlehem are a little taken aback when the shepherds emerge from the barnyard bearing nothing but praise.)
No, they didn’t necessarily clean themselves up, or attempt to improvise the proper procedures, when they went searching for what had been revealed to them. But the vision of the shepherds, for all its singularity, offers perhaps the one thing we can’t quantify, the gift whose quantification might be synonymous with its defeat: Wonder. And, armed with little more than wonder, they emerged from God’s presence filled with joy.