While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.
“Fear not !” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind
To you and all mankind.
– English Christmas Carol, 18th Century
The campfire has burned low, the sheep have settled down. The bread’s done, too — not that there was a lot of it to begin with. Nothing’s stirring, not even that wild dog they had to chase away last night. A bit cold, but that’s what it’s like for shepherds out on the hillsides around Bethlehem. One takes the first watch while the others try to get some sleep. And then, all the familiar sights change completely as they’re illuminated by a bright light that pierces the Judean sky and the hillside. And then, that voice, that mighty, terrifying voice, rings out :
“Do not be afraid ;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
They’re stunned. Literally. On the ground, doubting their eyes, their ears, their minds. And yet, they’re not allowed to stay like that for long, as the angel instructs them :
And this will be a sign for you :
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
It’s a call to action : the angel clearly expects them to get up and go. And they respond, going “in haste to Bethlehem,” where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” Seeing the swaddled baby, they carry out their mission, making known “the message that had been told them about this child.”
Today’s gospel brings us right here, to this moment where we witness these shepherds, so poor, so rough and ready, so utterly outside the pale of Jewish life, take on the role of the prophet by speaking a word from God, a word that’s not only for Israel but for the whole world : “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
They return to their flocks, surely changed forever, and we hear no more about them. But their message lingers, for a prophet speaks the word so that it might be heard by someone else. In this case, that someone is Mary, called “Theotokos,” that is, the “God-bearer,” or “Mother of God,” whose feast we celebrate today. Luke tells us that
Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
The first disciple, Mary listens, reflects, and remembers. She, too, will be a prophet, though words will not be her way of giving the message. Rather, her whole life will speak. In fact, it is already speaking right now as she rests in the straw of the stable in Bethlehem, listening to the little mews and grunts of her newborn, the even breathing of her sleeping, exhausted husband, the sounds of ox and ass chewing, the creaking of the timbers as the wind shakes the building. She’s here in this place because some nine months ago, when the angel spoke to her, she said “Yes.” That word changed not only her life, but also the life of the entire human race. From that moment until this one, and all the ones that are to come, her life will be speaking about the mystery of God’s becoming a human being like us. Her life will invite us to ponder “all these things” in our own hearts and then find our own ways to “speak” them.
Today’s gospel gives us these prophets – first the shepherds and then Mary – as invitations to be willing to be changed by the Word – and to “speak”whatever word the Word will give us. Speak in faith, speak in hope, speak in love, but speak. And as Saint Francis, the originator of the first Christmas crèche almost 800 years ago, would say : “Use words if necessary.”
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester, United States