30 Dec 2007
“‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’” (Luke 2:15) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
Today on the Sunday following Christmas we celebrate our special feast day of the Humble Shepherds. This day was called into being by the Synod that gathered in Scranton in 1906. The clergy and laity gathered at that time were for the most part poor, immigrant labourers. They were forced to the margins of American society. I’ve seen pictures of the coal miner shanties of the turn-of-the-century; they look like they’re from a third-world country. Sewage ran down ditches beside the dirt roads; houses were spare pieces of wood and metal; sanitation was not existent. They worked in horrible and dangerous conditions. The mine owners treated the draft animals better than the workers because it cost more to replace a donkey than a miner.
And it was these very people who gathered at Synod when our church was not even ten years old and who voted to honour the humble shepherds of Bethlehem and all that they stood for. Since the earliest days of the Christian church, we have celebrated a special feast day to honour the announce-ment of Christmas to the Wise Men, the Magi, the Three Kings. We will continue in that tradition next Sunday when we gather for the Feast of Epiphany. We will speak of their rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but today we honour first the humble shepherds of Bethlehem. For centuries they had no special feast day like that of the Three Kings. Maybe it took people with a special kindred to those humble, hard-working shepherds to right this wrong and to create this particular feast day.
God could have sent His angels into palaces and temples to announce the birth of His Son. Instead, they were sent to the humble shepherds, to men who were working that first Christmas night, to men who were doing a job that others in their society looked down upon. By sending His angels out into the fields, God honoured these hard-working, honest people. And the hard-working, honest people who met in Scranton in 1906 saw in that Christmas story a reflection of their own lives. When everyone else seemed to push them aside, God embraced them. They saw in those humble shepherds an affirmation that God’s providence is not measured only by wealth and status. God in a very special way watches over and walks with those who are like the Holy Child who was born in a Bethlehem manger and whose birth was first announced to the humble shepherds. God’s blessings aren’t measured in affluence and influence. They’re not limited to the healthy and the happy. That kind of an understanding leaves the vast majority of the world uncared for by God. Rather, His blessing is found in His presence, a presence not determined or limited by who the world thinks is worthy, and this is powerfully symbolized by the angels who are first sent to the humble shepherds of Bethlehem.
It was these people who saw dignity where others only saw poverty who were creating a church that respected all of her members as equal in the eyes of God. It would not be long before this Feast Day of the Humble Shepherds became associated with our prayers for Sacred Vocations. We would see in the humble shepherds of Bethlehem a model of priesthood in such a church as ours. Just as the angels did not first go to a palace, so our priests would not be rulers over their people. Just as the angels did not go into the Temple, so our priests would not lord their sacred privilege of saying the Mass over the people. The honour of our priesthood is defined by service not by separation. The Temple priests, on the other hand, defined themselves only by worship and ritual. The walls of the sanctuary were the walls where their priesthood stopped. These priests were condemned by the prophet Ezekiel because they were no longer shepherds of God’s people: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (34:4) In the humble shepherds and in their Feast Day, this church of ours would listen to the prophet. We would pray for a priesthood that respected its sanctity and its service equally as it served God at the altar and as it served God’s people as pastor.
Our church’s first priest was Fr. Francis Hodur. In 1906 when this feast day was called forth, he was not yet a bishop, that would take place the next year. If you have a chance at some point, look at the portrait of Bp. Hodur that hangs above our congregation from the choir loft. This is his formal portrait. The original painting hangs in the Scranton Cathedral rectory. He wears no mitre; he wears no bishop’s ring; he wears no opulent vestments. He chose to be seen as a humble priest, a humble bishop. Somehow later editions of this portrait show Bp. Hodur wearing the bishop’s ring. Those who came after him thought that he should be honoured with more signs of the dignity of his office. But when they painted on that ring, all they did was give evidence that they did not understand how Bp. Hodur judged priestly dignity. It wasn’t by the trappings of the Temple; it was by his work as priest and pastor, as shepherd, as a humble shepherd, that defined his office and its honour.
On the Feast of the Humble Shepherds, we pray that those who have been called by Christ, that those who can appreciate the meaning of and the reason for this feast day, that those who can value the example of a humble priesthood that Bp. Hodur has given to us, that these people of faith whoever they are, wherever they may come from, however young or old they are, that they accept Jesus’ sacred invitation to come forward as priest and pastor. It is a life filled with meaning, reward and blessing for those who have been called, but it is also a life of constant responsibility that is not turned off outside the walls of a church building. If we forget this, the priesthood becomes a damaging institution. So may we pray this day for worthy priests who will be humble shepherds in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)