Mass at Dawn
After the angels left them, there seemed to be an afterglow, like what you see when the sun goes down behind hills. But then they saw that the glow was in the east, not the west; so they knew that this glow was about a beginning and not an ending. The first streaks of dawn, all red and purple and gold, were coming up over those hills, reminding them of all that they’d just witnessed, and so they said:
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us.”
And off they went.
Nowadays, shepherds “clean up good” on our Christmas cards, and we love to see our children, dressed up in bathrobes and sandals, herd sheep at parish Christmas Eve pageants. No harm in that! At the same time, however, our grown-up minds are also aware that shepherds had to have been some of the most marginal members of first century Judean society. Living rough outside the towns, with little or no capacity to keep the Law, they were an unlikely choice for a revelation from God. Yet that’s what happened. Of course, the God of the Bible is someone who seems to delight in “unlikely choices”: think of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Hannah, Gideon, David, Amos, and plenty of others. But it seems to me that one of the things that makes us human – and not divine -- is that we still can be surprised, taken aback, even, when God does something “off script.” And so if we think about it, we blink at the idea of shepherds as recipients of a message delivered by an exaltation of angels.
The shepherds, on the other hand, don’t seem to have been surprised at all. Not so much as a single word is spent on their experience of the terrifying splendor of the angels, brilliant against the black Judean sky, loudly proclaiming glory to God in the highest. Instead, we see Luke describing their response by his use of the language of “haste” a word that he’s just applied a few verses earlier to Mary and her journey to Elizabeth: “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste.” Now the shepherds follow suit:
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
For two thousand years now, this beautiful scene has inspired the imaginations of painters, poets and preachers. Accompanied by the ox and the ass in the dark confines of the stable, the shepherds kneel in adoration and kiss the hand of the Christ Child. They carry lanterns, hold lambs, play flutes and guitars and bask in the light that surrounds the manger and the child who lies in it. One of my favorite renderings of this moment comes from the medieval Second Shepherds’ Play (ca. 1475), which starts off with some rough and tumble farce but ends most tenderly. Two shepherds offer Baby Jesus rustic gifts: a “bob of cherries,” and “a little bird.” In my opinion, however, the third shepherd’s gift is the best. He says to the newborn baby,
“Here, put out your hand; I've brought you a ball.
Have it, enjoy it, go play some tennis.”
All folklore aside, the shepherds of Luke’s gospel offer a far more striking gift. He tells us that “they made known the message that had been told them about this child.” Acting as prophets, these humble shepherds speak a word from the Word about the Word.
Mary, meanwhile, says Luke, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She who has already received a number of divine messages from various sources, including the Angel Gabriel and the unborn John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, now accepts yet another word, this time from poor grizzled strangers who smell of sheep. Like them (and unlike all those others “who heard it [and] were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds”), her response is not to be astonished but rather to contemplate her Child – their reason for journeying to Bethlehem as well.
Finally, the shepherds return to their flocks,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
Here they behave like many of the crowds who will witness the deeds of power that Jesus will accomplish when he begins his public ministry some thirty years hence. His deeds are intended not to draw attention to himself but to the Father; with these words, Luke shows us that even at his birth, Jesus points not to himself but to God.
Because it is the text assigned to the Dawn Mass, this gospel passage may not be as familiar to us as those designated for the Mass at Night (“Midnight Mass”), but its focus on witnessing to the Word offers us another dimension to what we often call “The Christmas Story.” While it’s good to enjoy all of the beautiful customs and images that have grown up around the birth of Jesus, it’s even better to recall that his birth makes demands of us. It challenges us not to stay all cozy and snug in our Hallmark Bethlehems, but rather to do something in response to this birth. Like those “certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay,” we too are being called to witness to the Word. What will our witness look like? Sound like?
A wonderful Christmas song in Spanish puts us into the place of the shepherds with its first line: “Vamos, pastores, vamos, vamos a Belen.” “Let’s go, shepherds, let’s go, let’s go to Bethlehem.” This year, let’s be shepherds – to go to see and worship the Child but also to listen for the call that his birth addresses to each of us. Amen.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province