Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Shepherds

I suppose hardly anyone in the English-speaking world hasn’t heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have really read it. Many more have seen some of the 42 film versions – classic Black & white to IMAX 3-D. Dickens was such a great fan of Christmas that he wrote several Christmas stories, in addition to the one about Scrooge. My personal favorite is The Seven Poor Travellers – about a Christmas Eve spent by the narrator with 6 others in a hostel for travelers. The story includes Dickens’ famous line: “Christmas comes but once a year, which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make this earth a very different place.” As with all good Christmas stories – starting with the Gospel according to St. Luke – while a lot happens during the night, it’s on Christmas morning when it all seems to come together.
Historically, this 2nd Mass of Christmas – officially the Missa in Aurora, “Mass at Dawn” – has often been called the “Shepherds’ Mass,” because of the prominent part played by shepherds in the Gospel we just heard. I suppose one could hardly tell the Christmas story without at least mentioning the shepherds. In the 4th century, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called their arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.” Even so, the shepherds do have a way of fading into the background, don’t they? In Christmas pageants, boys compete to play Joseph or perhaps one of the kings. How many specifically try out for the role of shepherd? (it’s no accident that, in that other great Christmas classic, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was Linus who was assigned that role). And it surely doesn’t help that the shepherds’ role in the story sometimes seems as if they were mainly just filling in the time between the great Gloria in excelsis Deo of the angels and the star-lit arrival of the Magi. As for their day job, how many modern folks would choose to make their living as shepherds? How many people in any period would prefer being a shepherd to, let’s say, being a king?
Even in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status. Given the religious importance of animal sacrifices, shepherds’ work was certainly necessary, but the nature of their job kept them with their flocks (even on Sabbath) – limiting their participation in Israel’s religious life and denying them the social respect that went with proper religious observance. So, as often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant day-laborers today), the shepherds were under-appreciated and probably felt it strongly. To top it off, they were probably pretty poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.
So it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds themselves) when the angel announced the birth of a savior who is Messiah and Lord - to them. To them, a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (the implication being that the shepherds themselves were now numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. The gift was nothing less than what St. Paul, writing to Titus, called "the kindness and generous love of God our savior." The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!
Last Sunday, we heard the story of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary. The story continues with how, having heard the angel’s message, Mary set out in haste to visit Elizabeth. Today, it’s the shepherds’ turn. There must be something special about angelic messages that suggests urgency, something special about good news of great joy for all people that just takes hold of its hearers and makes them move! So "they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger."
In most Nativity scenes, the shepherds stick around for a while. They’re often seen, still kneeling there, later on when the Magi arrive.
In the real story, however, they stayed just long enough to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus – just long enough to be found in turn (or rather re-found again) by God. And then the shepherds went back – back presumably to work and to their ordinary lives. But nothing for them would ever be the same again. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. However socially insignificant they may have been, however ordinary the lives they returned to, the kingdom of God was being born among them. And, however insignificant and ordinary we and our daily concerns may seem today, the kingdom of God is also being born among us – if only, like the shepherds, we hasten to find it in Mary’s Son.
The same Son of God who revealed himself to the shepherds in the Son of Mary continues to reveal himself to us in his Church this Christmas morning. Like the shepherds, we too hasten with wonder to find him and to be found in turn. And, as his Church, we continue doing what the shepherds did, making known to one another and to the world the message about this child in whom the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior have appeared and forever more continue to appear.
Among us this Christmas morning, no less than among those shepherds so long ago, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary, self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So, when the last carol has been sung and we disperse from here to our happy homes and holiday meals (or perhaps, as many must, to a somewhat sad or lonely home, or to a modest, maybe meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us and fill us and change us, as surely as it did those long ago shepherds – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
Merry Christmas!
Homily at the 2nd Mass of Christmas, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011.

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