30 Dec 2012
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told to them [by the angels].”
In the name …
The Feast of the Humble Shepherds is one of the two oldest liturgical innovations of our church denomination. It dates back to the Special Synod of 1906. At that time our church hadn’t even been around for her first full decade. The Special Synod was convened because there were opponents of our church both within and outside of our parishes who were working to undermine our efforts. We responded in two definitive ways. First we created the Feast of Brotherly Love, which we celebrate in September. We would not return insult for insult, anger for anger. Instead, we would pray for the virtue of brotherly love. This is how we would respond to our opponents.
Secondly, we created the Feast of the Humble Shepherds in order to celebrate the mystery that God more often than not chooses to reveal Himself in the most unexpected of ways. This must have been a welcome message to our church’s organizers who were facing criticism and prejudice because they had dared to step outside of that day’s religious norms. Theirs was a living experiment as church that dared to be different. Next Sunday, the Feast of Epiphany, we will speak about the Magi who are slowly but surely making their way to Bethlehem. That’s them on the window sills on the East-side of the church. Their story has more of the details you would expect to hear in the account of an extraordinary birth like that of the Son of God. There will be kings, expensive and rare gifts, not to mention the heavenly phenomenon of a new star appearing in the sky. But today we’re still talking about the shepherds, the humble shepherds, and Bethlehem’s manger.
No one would have expected God’s Son to be born in an animals’ manger because there was no room for them at the inn, and no one would have anticipated that God would send His angels to proclaim Jesus’ birth for the first time to shepherds. Magi bearing royal gifts – yes. A manger and humble shepherds – unlikely! And that surprise is part of God’s Christmas revelation.
I remember the one time I attended the Boar’s Head Festival down in Springfield. It’s a beautiful Christmas pageant, right down to the live animals. And do you know that live animals don’t know they’re in church? They don’t realize that church is a sacred place. So when the audience experiences the Boar’s Head Festival the live animals are supposed to, and generally do, help us feel that bucolic, peaceful feeling of Jesus being born in the warm straw of an animals’ manger. But like I said, live animals, though, don’t necessarily get that. They’re supposed to be cute and cuddly. When I was there, however, and I’m sure most every time they put on the festival, one of the animals decided it was time to finish off the eating and digesting cycle. And these are big farm animals. I know it must have happened a lot because immediately a guy showed-up with a shovel and a bucket. You’ve heard the expression before, but that bucket’s the real stuff, holy fertilizer. But that bucket reminds us of the reality that Jesus was born in a place that probably didn’t smell all that nice. We’ve sanitized the story, but it may be more poignant to not clean it up nice and tidy, to let us know that Jesus, the Son of God, was born in this most astonishing of circumstance. That poverty and desperation are part of the Christmas revelation.
And additionally, there are the shepherds. Shepherds were not a trusted crew and definitely not a respected lot. Many of their neighbours held them to be not very “civilized.” They stayed in the fields not in towns. They worked through the night rather than come home like “decent folk.” They spent most of their time with animals instead of other people. A lot of their contemporaries thought of shepherds as thieves probably because of their nighttime wanderings. And yet according to the Christmas story as Luke tells it, it is to shepherds that Jesus’ birth is first announced. There were others in Bethlehem that could have received this message. Even Jerusalem was only 5 miles away. The angels could have been sent to the Temple or to the palace, but instead, the angels were sent to the humble shepherds. And maybe that’s why the angels were sent to them. Maybe they more than others would appreciate the revelation of a Saviour born in such humble surroundings. I don’t think the Temple and the palace would have responded very well to this revelation, but the shepherds, we’re told this morning, returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
The Temple was an intentional fortress meant to keep the holiest presence of God and people like the shepherds forever separated. The palace, we’re going to hear next Sunday, was more worried about an insurrection than about the newborn Saviour. But the humble shepherds rejoiced over the revelation that God had entered the world in an animals’ manger so that the meaning of holy and power would be turned on their heads. No one expected it but God when Jesus came as the lowest common denominator so that in Him everyone would be included in God’s embrace. That’s the gist of the Christmas revelation. That’s the stuff of hope. That’s why we created this Feast Day in 1906.
And maybe the humble shepherds are to remind us to not be overly confident when we think we know how God should act, what God would say, what God would condemn or bless. Their story should also keep us humble in our judgments. Ours is a God of surprises so we should be attentive to His continuing revelations and to the voice of our consciences. And we should always keep as the guide of our faith the Christmas message of a Saviour who entered the world so that all people may know that they are sacred to God, and when the church forgets this message her people need to push and remind her. Hopelessness, despair and rejection have to give way before a story like Christmas. Then, like the humble shepherds, we can all return from this place glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo