“[The shepherds] went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.”(Luke 2:16)In the name …
Since the Synod of 1906, our church has been observing the Feast of the Humble Shepherds on the Sunday after Christmas.For the church of 1906 the humble shepherds of Bethlehem held a special significance.A century ago this was a church of poor immigrants.They lacked in formal education and were thus forced to take the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs available.Their language and customs kept them for the most part isolated in neighbourhoods where everyone else was basically poor and disenfranchised too.They knew firsthand of the prejudice directed against newcomers to America who looked and sounded different than the ones who had come before them.All of this first-hand experience built-up a connection between them and the humble shepherds of Bethlehem, a connection that inspired the delegates of that synod to name today’s feast day as one of the first two holy days ever created by our church.
In the days of Jesus, shepherds were considered social outcasts just like many of the immigrant members of our church’s first decade felt like outcasts in their new homeland.The shepherds spent their time out among animals rather than people, out in the fields rather than in the villages and cities, out at night instead of home with families.They were pre-judged by others as tending towards untrustworthy and criminal behaviour because of all this just as many of our first immigrant members were thought to be a rather unsavoury lot.The church of 1906 understood the prejudice directed at the humble shepherds.But also, the church of 1906 appreciated that out of all the people in Israel that God could have chosen to hear the first announcement of Jesus’ birth, it was these very same humble shepherds who were so honoured by God.The ones that were outcast from society were the ones chosen to witness the angelic announcement:“‘This day in David’s city a Saviour has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.’”The church of 1906 found comfort in the teaching that God could see through the haze of human prejudice and value a person even if others could not.
We are no longer the church of 1906, but we underestimate the value of this lesson if we read it only as history.This isn’t only about the prejudice that was once a very real part of maybe our grandparents and great-grandparents generations.It’s not only to remind us of what once was.Instead, today’s feast of the Humble Shepherds speaks to us at two levels.It offers us the example of Bethlehem’s shepherds and also that of the immigrant founders of our church, and both call upon us as parishioners and church to avoid the easy sin of prejudice, or pre-judging others.We see in the story of the humble shepherds that our opinions do not necessarily reflect those of God, that the shepherds who were vilified as immoral were actually the ones honoured by the angelic visitation.We see in the history of our church the discrimination that was a despised part of our story, and if we resent it when it was directed at our forebears then we must also be offended by it when prejudice is directed at any other group too whether it be because they are different or poor, because of their gender or choice.Maybe this is why the other feast day created by the 1906 Synod was the Feast of Brotherly Love.
The Feast of the Humble Shepherds reflects the unexpected revelation of God at Christmas who chooses to bring Jesus into our world in the completely unforeseen surroundings of the Bethlehem manger.God reveals Himself in Jesus’ birth in a way we would never have expected, and then God chooses to announce this birth to an audience that no one would have imagined.The message for all of us is that God can surprise us and that we need to be attentive to His will and His revelation so that our own plans and even our own prejudices don’t silence them – because seldom does God shout.
And this leads to the last prayer of today’s Feast Day, the prayer for Sacred Vocations.Somewhere along the line in the history of this day’s observance of the Humble Shepherds, prayers were added for the shepherds of the church, her clergy.We pray for those who already serve as priest and pastor, and we offer our prayers also for those whom God is trying to call.God seldom shouts, but God does call enough of His people to serve in the church.This is why we must pray for Sacred Vocations.God can speak with those whom He has called during prayer, Mass, study and Bible reading, but if all of these are avoided or entered into half-heartedly, then God’s call is replaced by other voices that have taken its place, and God seldom shouts.Where will tomorrow’s priests and pastors come from if church is not a regular and respected part of our members’ lives now?If we cannot today inspire our own young people to at least consider a life given to God in Sacred Vocations, then who will visit tomorrow’s hospitals, who will share the sacraments with the next generation of the church, who will be in the rectory when for whatever the reason we call and need a priest?
We are seeing Roman Catholic churches closing around us because they have not enough clergy.We have open parishes of our own that suffer and dwindle because we cannot staff them.Is it really that God doesn’t call His people to the priesthood, or is it more likely that we don’t give God enough chance to speak with us?This is why we must pray for Sacred Vocations so that those who are called may hear the quiet voice of God over all the distractions of our world, and that maybe even the church herself needs to listen to God’s continuing revelation so that if God is ready to call any person of faith to the priesthood then the church should stand ready to follow.The shepherds of Bethlehem witnessed the heavenly revelation and the first thing they did was follow through and search out the child.Let us hope that our prayers are also followed by action, that those who hear the call of Sacred Vocations may also choose to follow through and may also be able to follow through so that they may serve as priest and pastor. For this we pray on the special feast day of the Humble Shepherds in Jesus’ name. Amen. +