January 1, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
The good news on the first day of the new year is from Luke 2:16-21.
So they [the shepherds] went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. When the eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The angel had told the frightened shepherds that a savior had been born who is the Messiah and Lord and where to find him in the city of David. A savior come to bring the blessing of God’s peace.
Here is the origin of the eucharist, God’s sacrifice of His only Son and sustenance for His people. The etymology of ‘manger’ is the French verb ‘to eat.’ The manger in which Jesus was laid was not only a trough from which the cattle ate, it was the symbol for the body of Christ given to us for the nourishment of our souls, our spirits. Jesus is the gift for which the shepherds glorified and praised God and for which we give thanksgiving in receiving the eucharist. I think that Luke must have deliberately chosen to use the manger as a symbol. It seems to me that Mary would have snuggled Jesus close to her to keep him warm on this cold day in January with no other source of heat than her own body rather than laying him in a manger. I never thought of that before; it’s funny how we accept so much of what we are taught without questioning.
The role of the shepherds is likewise symbolic. One of the themes of Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ special consideration and compassion for the disadvantaged. In fact, Luke’s book is often called the gospel of the poor. It seems unlikely that the shepherds would have left their flock without protection. The safe keeping of the flock was a serious responsibility, so serious that they slept with their sheep. Shepherds were about the lowest in the social order and looked down upon by Jews as they did not observe the meticulous rituals and purifications. Their job precluded such strict observations. So, they were both used and abused by the dominant members of society. Barclay suggests that this flock may have been the private flock of the temple in nearby Jerusalem. These unblemished lambs were kept for sacrifice on the altar every morning and evening. These shepherds then were the first to see the Lamb of God, the sinless Son who would be sacrificed to the sin of the world. Again, Luke has used the shepherds as symbols of God’s special concern for the least valued by men.
Those who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed. It seems they must have given it little regard, however. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have given Jesus special attention and consideration as a child and youth? We have not evidence of that, though. Had the temple authorities and members of the Sanhedrin witnessed all this and told the people, we would have had a different story altogether. That wasn’t God’s plan, though. He sent Jesus to challenge those in authority and dominance and to lift up and nourish those most in need. I need to keep that in mind, because I don’t think God’s plan has changed.
I have been told that I am a political extremist. At first I rejected that label. This morning, however, I think I’m proud to be thought so if that puts me in the same category as Jesus. And it goads me to take more action to champion the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged. Lip service isn’t enough. If that’s all Jesus had done, we wouldn’t know anything about him today. He wants me to act on his message, not just hear it. It doesn’t do any good to simply be amazed as those who heard the shepherds’ story, but not to take it in and change the way I live my life. Truly believing, faith, means acting in accord with those principles, not just saying that’s what I believe. That’s a good way to start the new year.