28 Dec 2014
“And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” (Luke 2:18) In the name …
On this Sunday after Christmas our church celebrates one of the unique liturgical feast days of our denomination, the Feast of the Humble Shepherds. My Polish is almost non-existent. I can read it after a lot of practice, but that doesn’t translate into understanding what I’m reading. But I have been told, and I have checked in a Polish dictionary, the word that was used in the original Polish for this feast day was not humble, but poor. If you type poor into a computer’s thesaurus, the word humble does emerge as a possible alternative. But there’s a very good chance that the original intent of the word was simply poor. The word humble has moral connotations. Pride, teaches the church, is the first of the deadly sins. It leads to all others. Its opposite is humility, or to be humble. Humble, in contrast to the deadly sin of pride, is virtuous. Now poor can mean something like this too, but the more concrete understanding of the word that I think most of us would tend toward is broke, not-rich, impoverished. This doesn’t have any moral connotation. And I think that the word poor better reflects the intent of Luke when he tells us the story of the Bethlehem shepherds.
They are occupied with the day-to-day matters of making a living when into their lives God intervenes. It is God’s initiative here. Luke consciously tries to make his Gospel open to all people, and he sees the shepherds as a part of this plan. God does not send His angels to religious or political leaders. The angels announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds who are working in the fields. Most everyone can identify with the shepherds. Most everyone knows what it is to work for a living, to even work those unwanted shifts and hours, just like the shepherds guarding their flocks in the middle of the night out in the fields. They would much rather have been at home in bed. Luke’s Christmas announcement is meant for everyone when the angels appear to the poor shepherds.
It’s not that the shepherds were better or worse than anyone else. There isn’t a real moral overtone to the choice. The shepherds didn’t earn the privilege of being the first to hear of Christmas. It was granted to them by God, and for God’s own reasons. More than humble, the poor Bethlehem shepherds symbolize Everyman. The shepherds were definitely not associated with wealth when back in their day there was no real middle class. You were either very rich or just plain poor. And that’s not far off the mark from today’s world either. The week prior to Christmas the Pew Research Center reported that the gap between the nation’s wealthiest and the nation’s middle and low income earners was the widest it has been since the government began collecting such date three decades ago. So almost anyone hearing Luke’s Gospel story of Christmas, then or now, could relate to the shepherds. And this is why they’re there. There are no outcasts in Jesus’ world. The child comes for everyone. Not only for the good, not only for those who believe. The child comes for everyone.
This religious concept of inclusion and openness in the faith was and is an important one in our church denomination. That’s why today’s Feast was one of the very first liturgical innovations of our church back in 1906, and why this feast day is still celebrated today in 2014. In 1906 we bore the brunt of being the outcasts. In 2014 we therefore have the moral obligation to preach and exemplify a Gospel message of welcome, especially to the marginalized of society. That’s the same message of the shepherds, the same message of Christmas. In the child, God has come into our world for all people whoever they may be, whatever they may look like, however they may choose to practice their faith. The poor shepherds, rather than the humble ones, give form to this message that it is not merit or virtue that defines the extent of the Christmas invitation. They symbolize that in Christmas God has come for all of His creation in the hopes that all of His creation will come to Him.
The Bible story progresses from God’s relationship with one man, Adam, to one family, that of Abraham, to one nation, that of Israel, and now in Christmas to the entirety of His creation. The shepherds give illustration to this fact of God’s open embrace. He must see things differently than we do. We tend to emphasize the differences that separate us and too often we judge those differences as moral faults. The message of the shepherds and of Christmas is that God looks past such things and reaches out to everyone. Kristin is already back at college, but when she was home she and her mother and I were in the rectory kitchen. I asked her to go and water the Christmas tree. In her defense, for most all of her life, up until just a couple of years ago, we have had a live Christmas tree. She picked-up the watering can and walked into the living room. When she got to the tree, I watched as she stopped and stood there for a few moments. Then you could see the light bulb go on above her head. We have an artificial tree. She turned around sputtering something about her father as I laughed in the kitchen. We can sometimes get appearances and reality mixed-up, and sometimes the past can blind us to the present. This is why we continue to celebrate and delve into the mystery of Christmas on this Feast of the Humble Shepherds. Its message of inclusion in a Saviour born as one of us and now of God’s invitation to all people in the example of the poor shepherds of Bethlehem should direct the church still today so that we may say with all honesty, in Jesus’ name, that all are welcome here. On this feast of the Humble Shepherds, for this may we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo