The Nativity of the Lord - Angels and Shepherds

Mass at Dawn

Christmas is such a powerful, intimate reminder that we are never alone. Once we accept the miracle of God-made-man, then every facet of human life takes on a new dimension ...a Jesus-dimension. Everything is touched by His spirit of love, of peace, of hope. Only then will the words of Isaiah take meaning: "The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light!"

Luke tells us that the shepherds were keeping "night watch" over their flocks when the angels came to announce the good news of salvation. That's what it can feel like, being a believer in today's world... darkness all around and the call to duty, to watch and protect what is vulnerable and valuable. 

keepingwatchbynightWe search for peace in an increasingly hostile world; forgiveness when others hold grudges; simplicity while all around us there is spending and accumulating; concern for the needy whom society marginalizes and government policies neglect; frugality while our nation uses resources as if there were no tomorrow.

We hear that God’s favor “rests” on the shepherds, the outsiders. And half of the narrative is dedicated to them. The shepherds aren’t singled out because they were praying for a Messiah. Actually, it was just the opposite. Their "profession" kept them out with their sheep, unable to observe the Sabbath rituals and prayers with the community. We don’t even know if they could be counted among, what we would call, “the deserving poor.” They were just shepherds doing their jobs. At least, they seemed to be doing that well - “living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock.” It wasn’t because these shepherds were so worthy or extraordinary - yet God reveals himself to them: “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

They receive the good news that the savior born for “all people” will be found in a manger. By focusing on the shepherds, Luke is reaching out to the poor and forgotten by means of one like themselves, one “lying in a manger.” The shepherds hear in the angelic chorus the good news that, though they have not achieved status and standing in the world’s eyes, God has noticed them.

The God of Luke’s Gospel is reaching out and showing favor to those considered small and unimportant. The savior is meant “for all the people,” and through him God’s “favor” will rest on all those who accept him and his message.

But the one who seemed most unimportant at that time - the babe in the manger - is the one remembered, revered, and followed to this day. What seems powerful and influential today and seems to take so much of our time and energy, in the future may not be remembered at all. However, if we choose to turn to the one whose birth we celebrate today, in an insignificant place and among a forlorn people, we will find in him permanence and significance for our lives.

Christmas stirs people’s hearts to generosity for those who are on the fringe of our society. The savior’s birth in humble settings deepens our awareness of modern day refugees, homeless families and hungry children.  This is a time when we are moved to offer help and assistance. Even the secular press sponsor clothing and food drives for the needy and inform readers how and where they can volunteer to feed the homeless and drop off warm clothing for those in need.

These are noble efforts and to be applauded. But the Christmas season will fade. The day after Christmas will find many of our curbs lined with discarded Christmas trees, decorations and gift wrappings. Society will move on and bundle up for the cold and dreary days of January that lie ahead. The challenge for believers is to carry the message Luke gives us today into the winter, spring, summer and autumn days ahead.

There is no mandate in today’s Gospel to reach out to the poor. Rather, we first hear the “good news of great joy” that tells us what God has done and is doing for us. First and foremost, this Gospel story is one of grace. God’s favor rests on us; not for anything we have done, but because God has chosen to be gracious to us. The angels don’t bring a commandment of what we must do to win God’s favor. Rather they announce that God has manifested glory by favoring us with a savior.

He comes in unexpected disguises, in strange circumstances, using unusual people and places. So often we do not recognize His coming into our lives. We see only the surface, the obvious. And we miss the opportunity to experience the nearness of our God. The ancient story that is forever new breaks once again upon our restless world, and because the Word has been made flesh, we are remade, lifted up, revived. Our distant, faceless, timeless God has taken a mortal body as His own. He has entered our time and come to our place.

And so, we, too, keep watch by night. We dare not miss the moments of His rebirth in our lives