29 Dec 2013
“… and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” (Luke 2:18)
In the name …
The year was 1906. Things were not going too well for our nine year old church denomination. There were internal and external forces that were threatening to tear this young church apart before she really even got her feet beneath her. We had met for our First Synod only two years earlier and we weren’t supposed to meet again until 1909. By 1906, however, everyone knew we couldn’t wait that long. As the delegates to this Special Synod gathered once again in Scranton, amongst all of the other work they accomplished, they also created two special feast days for our church. One was the Feast of Brotherly Love that we celebrate in September. The other was today’s Feast of the Humble Shepherds.
Brotherly Love challenged us to be better Christians. It would have been natural and easy to return slander for slander. Instead we would pray each and every year to love one another. We would say this prayer annually because it is so hard to love those who mistreat us, and it is so unnatural to “turn the other cheek” that we would remind ourselves every year that forgiveness and compassion are essential parts of Christianity. But that’s a sermon for nine months from now. Humble Shepherds, on the other hand, was a moral boost. It was a shot in the arm. It was adrenaline for the soul. Brotherly Love was a test; Humble Shepherds was a reward. In 1906 most all of our church’s members were poor. Most all were mistreated as new immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most all had very limited educations because they were displaced persons. They were fleeing the ravages of their homeland and that didn’t allow time for sitting in a classroom. Even in their own ethnic community, they were often ridiculed because they belonged to a new and strange church.
But these harried people found comfort in the message of the Humble Shepherds. God had sent His angels to announce the birth of the Christ Child to people just like themselves. God favoured the shepherds with the privilege of hearing the angelic chorus sing “Glory to God in the highest.” If God had once so honoured the humble shepherds, then God would also bless the efforts of these coal-miner families who were trying to build a reformed Catholic church. Today’s feast day was a welcomed reminder that even if they faced prejudice in their new country and ridicule because of their new church, they were still cherished by God. And just like the humble shepherds of Bethlehem, they would do their part. Once the shepherds had witnessed the parting of the night skies, they “went in haste,” they hurried to see the Christ Child, and once there they shared the message of the angels. So would we pray on this feast day to be enthusiastic in the expression of our faith and also that we would try our utmost to proclaim the nearness of Christ to all who needed to hear this blessed announcement.
The Feast of the Humble Shepherds, though, is obviously not only about us. It is the sacred reminder of a universal truth that God came into our world as one who was poor and outcast and announced Himself to the humble shepherds who were poor and outcast to show people of faith that all the poor and outcast are embraced by God and therefore should be embraced by God’s people. The church is to work for our spiritual betterment, but the church must also work to help the poor and to tear down walls of separation. Especially in a church born among the poor and ones who faced prejudice, we have a heightened responsibility to never forget.
I remember seeing a Christmas episode of The Jefferson’s when I was a kid. George Jefferson was an African-American who had made it big in the dry cleaning business. That was the story behind the theme song of “Movin’ on up,” which I bet a lot of people my age still remember. In the Christmas episode, George was sneaking out to a project somewhere in a poor New York City neighbourhood. His wife Weezy thought he may have been having an affair and she followed him one night. That’s when she discovered that George was secretly leaving Christmas gifts outside the door of his old apartment where he had once lived as a kid. He may have been living in a deluxe apartment in the sky, but he didn’t forget where he had come from. The Feast of the Humble Shepherds is only hypocrisy if we think it only pertains to Bethlehem or to our own story of once being poor, and that it doesn’t challenge us to help the poor today.
The celebration of this feast day also reminds us as church that we are to work toward bringing people together. Too often church pushes people away. Too often church judges anything different or even new as sin and sin is to be avoided. Almost everyone knows the story of Noah’s Ark, of all the living creatures making their way onto the ark before the flood starts. But there’s one point of the story I don’t hear too often. Once the rains come, it is God who closes the door, not Noah (Gen. 7:16). The church has long taken the ark as a symbol of her mission in the world. If the ark is the church, we need to remember always that God is in charge of the door, not us. Our responsibility is to point people to the open door and invite them in. Ours is the moral responsibility of finding the stranger, the outcast, the lonely, the ridiculed, and invite them to come in. If we do anything less than this, then the Feast of the Humble Shepherds is only hypocrisy because we will be acting as if God only came to us as outcasts and to no one else.
The Feast of the Humble Shepherds also became associated with Sacred Vocations and our prayers for humble shepherds for our parishes.
· The cry of “Abba, Father” is about sincerity. This is not limited by gender. Can a son exclaim “Abba, Father” better than a daughter?
· Fr. Jason Soltysiak’s article in God’s Field about caring about parishioners. A new priest came and left in a matter of weeks. We search out pastors as if male was the major requirement, when we should be looking for commitment. And commitment is not gender based.
· Jesus was born into our world. That did not sanctify men because He was a boy child. It sanctified creation and especially human creation. This is not gender based.
· Humble Shepherds speaks about inclusion and working against prejudice. As a church we are prejudiced against a full 50% of the human population by not allowing women to serve as priests and pastors.
· There is a group of women at HNJ working to try and change this. I will help them as much as possible, but it must come from women.
On this feast day, let us cherish the nature of a God and Saviour who forgets no one and who wants to include everyone. Let us pray on this feast day that we may do our part as God’s people to find what we share in common and to build on that so that the Christmas Season we still celebrate may encourage us to imitate the humble shepherds who first rushed to find the Christ Child and then shared their news with all there gathered. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo