Monday, December 23, 2013

Homily: Midnight Mass 2013

In that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

It sometimes happens that when I meet someone and they realize I am a clergyman, they will ask me: “where do you do your pastoring?” I tell them that I have a little 40 acre spread between Greenville and Sulfur Springs.

The Bible is full of shepherds, real and metaphorical, mentioned over 200 times in the Old and New Testament. Shepherding was the chief occupation of the Israelites in the early days of the patriarchs, although it seems to have fallen out of favor, as the cultivation of crops developed. I guess that wheat fields are considerably easier to manage than a flock of wandering sheep.

Metaphorical sheep even easier still. The Shepherd came to designate not only persons who herded sheep but also kings and God Himself.  Later the prophets referred to Israel's leaders as shepherds, often on negative terms. The New Testament mentions shepherds 16 times. Some New Testament references used a shepherd and the sheep to illustrate Christ's relationship to His followers who referred to Him as “our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep”. Jesus spoke of Himself as “the good shepherd” who knew His sheep and would lay down His life for them. Jesus commissioned Peter to feed His sheep. St. Paul likened the church and its leaders to a flock with shepherds.

But the shepherds we encounter in Gospel tonight are real shepherds, not metaphorical ones and pretty important because they are the first and aside from Mary and Joseph the only witnesses to the birth of Christ. They are part of the story for a reason because the only thing metaphorical about them is that they stand for you and me, for the proper response the message of the angels which we too have received.

The first thing the Gospel says about the shepherds is that they were ‘keeping watch’ – which simply means that they like us tonight were awake when everyone else was asleep. Maybe they were awake because they expected trouble but in any case what they got was the good news that God is not asleep, salvation is at hand. The birth of Jesus, we might easily forget, was an under publicized event, no one noticed what had happened, just those who were awake. So it is too with us and with what St. Bernard called ‘the middle coming of Christ’ – he come first in great humility and he will come again in glorious majesty but he also comes in between in the present. But we have to be vigilant, watchful, awake to recognize this coming in the Blessed Sacrament, in his Word read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, in prayers answered, in the silence of resting on his presence. Long before Maundy Thursday and long after Jesus says “will ye not watch with me”.

The immediate response of the shepherds is to be in a hurry: "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us and they went with haste”. If it is true, as John Betjeman put it, “that God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine,” then nothing is more important. After the birth of Christ nothing can be the same. The danger is that we will imagine that things are the same. Once upon a time the history of the world was divided into ‘Before Christ” and “Anno Domini”-- “the Year of the Lord”. But, whatever the language police might say, that reckoning can never be our reckoning. The shepherds teach us what comes first, how to order our priorities. Those wild folk, the Desert Fathers, said that prayer is misbehavior from the standpoint of the world. A kind of divinely inspired madness!  Have you ever wondered what happened to the sheep that night? Never mind! “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”.

"Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." The Greek actually says ““Let us see this Word that has occurred there.” God’s Word, the Word given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing miracle. God’s Word is his humility. God’s Word is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God’s power and greatness!  Instead he invites us to become like him. Indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this Word; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness. Humility is the hardest virtue and the most difficult Word for us to receive.

My impression is that the campaign to put Christ back into Christmas, to insist that Jesus is the reason for the season has been more subdued this year. It is probably preaching to the choir anyway. In any case even the forgetting of Jesus, rejecting him, ignoring him serve the divine purpose. Because that was what the first Christmas was like, that is what the extreme humility of the Word made flesh was like, the central event in human history, almost no one noticing, almost no one caring, too busy with other things, too preoccupied with apparently more important matters. Except the shepherds,whose company this night we are invited to keep.

In that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Many of the ideas in this homily are inspired or downright stolen from a Midnight Mass Homily of Pope Benedict XVI. Ad multos annos.

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