The Gospel story both begins and ends with a stupendous miracle. At the beginning we are told of a baby boy born with no human father, and in conclusion we hear of a dead man brought back to life. From start to finish the Good News of Jesus Christ challenges our credulity. Notice who were the first witnesses of these things. The first to learn of Jesus' resurrection was a group of women. St Luke tells us (Lk 24:10--11), "It was Mary Magdelene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women which were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not." The first to hear of the birth of Christ were a bunch of shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
*Now what did women and shepherds have in common? Obviously these women and these shepherds enjoyed the highest possible privilege. They heard the Gospel. No greater privilege than that, is there? But in the ancient world, the world in which the Incarnation took place, both women and shepherds held a lowly place. They had no standing and no credibility. Neither women nor shepherds were permitted to be witnesses in a court of law. No matter if they were eye-witnesses to an event, their word had no weight in the world.
These were the ones to whom God, in His sovereignty and His wisdom, saw fit first to reveal His Gospel of grace. In that amazing Gospel of amazing grace, God over-rules all our notions of what is true, what is credible, what makes sense. The Gospel tells us that after the shepherds had gone to the manger to see for themselves with their own eyes the wonderful thing which the angels had told them about, "And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child" (Lk 2:17). Did anyone believe them? Probably not. After all, this story was transmitted only by a gang of sheep-herders, ignorant and simple men, commonly regarded as horse-thieves and cattle rustlers in American folk-lore.
But the shepherds at the manger and the women at the tomb knew alike what they had seen and heard. Just a few days before the Church's celebration of the Birth Day of Christ, we celebrate the feast of St Thomas, the man who said, "Except I see ... I will not believe." You know what happened next: Jesus came and said to Thomas, "Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing" (Jn 20:27).
We began by saying that the shepherds and the women at the tomb enjoyed the highest possible privilege: hearing the Good News of God's merciful love for fallen mankind, His redeeming grace for hopeless sinners. We celebrate today that same message, rejoicing that we too enjoy the privilege of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And at His Christmas Altar He says to us, as He said to Thomas, "be not faithless but believing." LKW