Now there were shepherds in that region
living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
As the Christmas story is proclaimed again today we can easily let our minds wander. We know the story well and we have many other thoughts going on in our heads. As the story of the birth of the Messiah is told again, we may find our minds mulling over the preparations still to be done, the travel that lies ahead, the people we will encounter, the personal concerns that may weigh heavy and in a very positive way the joy and excitement that surrounds us at this time of year. First of all, that is OK – there is lots of stimulation going on that easily distracts us, furthermore we believe that it is into all of this “stuff”, the joys and the sorrows, that Christ is born.
It is still important, however, to challenge ourselves to truly listen to this Christmas mystery once again and ask ourselves, what is this familiar yet remarkable account saying to me today? What questions come to mind as I truly listen? What do I need to understand more fully? In what way am I being challenged by something so familiar yet so profound?
In listening to the gospel again today we hear of the birth of Jesus in the manger, and then we hear of the shepherds. St. Luke tells us,
“there were shepherds… keeping the night watch over their flock.”For what or for whom were they watching? Not the angel for sure. They were watching for predators, a wolf that would attack the sheep or a thief that would steal the flock. They were watching in fear. Yet what did they see? They saw an angel and then a multitude of angels telling them to not be afraid because a savior has been born. They were watching, as they always did with fearful eyes and instead saw a vision that brought unexpected hope.
St. Luke then tells us the shepherds went to the manger to find the child as described. Did any shepherds stay behind in darkness to watch the remaining flock with fearful eyes? When they got there and found this poor couple and their baby in a stable were some of them disappointed, confused or in doubt? Did they see this child with eyes of disappointment and doubt?
St. Luke does not tell us how long they stayed or what happened to them when they went back to everyday life. The shepherds, the first witnesses to this familiar testament of our faith, are never mentioned in the scriptures again. On the following night, out in the field, we wonder if they went back to watching with fearful eyes. As the days and weeks turned into months and years, did disappointment and doubt grow? Only a few witnessed what happened that night, did hope only last for the few and for a short time.
The shepherds are the ones that challenge me to reflect deeper on this Christmas mystery. There is no evidence that 30 years later, shepherds were amongst the followers of Jesus as his mission unfolded but is it possible that there were some? As these shepherds returned to everyday life did they all return to watching with fearful, doubting and disappointed eyes or did what they saw, change the outlook for some? Although they returned to everyday life did they in some way, continue to follow the child?
Keeping watch is what we have been raised to do. We are taught to be aware, and to be on the lookout for danger and evil. We live in an era that has learned to watch in fear whether it be global terror, neighborhood violence, abuse or economic disasters, we are keenly aware of the wolves and the thieves for whom we must watch with fearful eyes. As children it is our nature to look for what is good and makes us happy. It is through the burden of adulthood that our experiences begin to plant the seeds of doubt fear and disappointment. It is in the midst of that reality that Christmas comes.
At this time we look to be joyful. We sing, we give and receive gifts; we worship, pray and give thanks. For this moment we see with eyes of joy and hope. Darkness does give way to light. We follow the child to the beautiful scene at the manger and we find peace, a rekindled faith and new found joy. Our question is, when the celebration ends, when we return to ordinary life, will we continue to follow the child?
Adults like to follow children into moments of joy. We almost feel like they are the permission we need to be joyful. You will see during these days of Christmas that much of the joy is seen through the eyes of children. I saw it a month ago at the Thanksgiving Day parade. I have never seen adults so excited over clowns and balloons. There was a grandmother behind me in the grandstand continually pointing out things to her granddaughter Morgan. “Look Morgan, it’s Dora the Explorer. Look Morgan, it’s Sponge Bob. Look Morgan, it’s Kermit the Frog. Look Morgan…it’s the Jonas Brothers!” My patience was wearing thin with her enthusiasm until the Sesame Street float passed and I heard myself say out loud to my sister, “Look it’s really Susan, Gordon and Bob!” We love to follow children into joy but it is a greater challenge to follow them beyond joyful celebration and fantasy.
When I tell people I am a High School chaplain, some will remark how fun that must be, others worry that it must be very difficult work and others wonder when I am going to get a real job. Teenagers and adults involved in the life of a teenager know that following a child into these years is difficult. There are certainly moments of joy but there are also great moments of darkness and struggle. During these growing up years there is doubt, disappointment, failure, rejection and pain. It is hard to follow a child through these moments but those who do also see the success that the struggle brings. Whether it is an improved test grade, athletic or artistic achievements, developing self confidence or college scholarships, the success after the darkness is appreciated that much more. Those who follow the child through the struggles, witness the initial hope fulfilled.
This is Christian life. We are challenged to follow the child beyond the peace and joy of this scene of quiet joy. We are challenged to follow through the struggle that lies ahead and live with the hope that his birth promises. We follow the Christ Child not with eyes of fear or doubt but a willingness to see what others do not. We follow him to this Eucharist each and every week, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to our own quiet prayer. We follow through our personal and communal pain. To acknowledge a savior means we acknowledge we need to be saved from something. We only know and appreciate from what we have been saved if we follow the child from joyful hope, through despair and doubt to promise fulfilled.
I want to believe that some of those shepherds did return to their watch, knowing there were still predators but that they and their flock were in the hands of God.
I want to believe that even through years of doubt and disappointment, some of the shepherds remained hopeful because of what they saw that night. I want to believe that some of those shepherds or their children or grandchildren saw the mission of Jesus Christ lived, that they too were among the witnesses of his preaching, miraculous deeds, passion, death and resurrection.
I do believe that if we continue to follow the child and see with eyes of hope – we will find joy amidst sadness, certainty in our doubt and courage in the face of evil. We do believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that we might follow this child and believe that he is Emmanuel, God with us, yesterday, today and forever.
This familiar mysterious truth invites us to watch and see with eyes of hope, to follow this Christ Child from the joy, through the sorrow to the promise fulfilled and to believe in this savior born to us.