Eight days have passed since we celebrated Christ’s birth on Christmas, and St Luke paints a picture of the shepherds making their way to the stable cave at Bethlehem and there are three verbs that describe the shepherds’ actions are not mere coincidence – they are the inspired pattern of how every Christian should live out the message of Christmas.
First, St Luke tells us that the shepherds “went in haste” to find Christ, to seek him out amid his family. They were eager to meet the Saviour, to spend time with him, to get to know him, to receive his blessing.
That’s why Jesus came to earth in the first place – so that we could more easily find him. The history of humanity is the history of a people lost in darkness and searching for meaning, forgiveness, grace, and light. Jesus is the source of all those things. He is our salvation. That’s the significance of the name “Jesus”, which means “God saves.”
The Jews traditionally had their boys circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. During the ceremony, the child would also be given his name. St Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary followed this tradition with Jesus.
Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with ancient Israel, and the most important thing about that covenant was God’s promise to send a Saviour. Receiving one’s name at the same time that the boy was circumcised was a symbolic way of emphasizing that the boy’s life, his very identity, was now tied up with that promise. And performing the ceremony on the eighth day was also significant. God had created the universe in seven days. But that creation was wrecked by original sin. The eighth day is a symbol of the redemption – the first day of the new creation in Christ.
God’s promise of blessing, our identity, redemption and everlasting life – this is what Christ comes to give us, therefore we, like the shepherds, should be eager to go and look for Christ, to find him each day in prayer, the Bible, and the sacraments.
Second, the shepherds “repeated what they had been told about him.” The news the angels announced to them was too good to keep to themselves. They felt a need to share it, to tell others about the Saviour. That is always a sign of an authentic encounter with God.
Even on a merely human level – if you find a great book or Web site, you tell your friends about it. When we truly experience Christ, even just a little bit, something similar happens. Our hearts automatically overflow with a desire to share that experience. And if we don’t feel that desire, it probably means that our friendship with Christ needs some maintenance.
Being committed Christians doesn’t make us immune to temptation. If we are not careful, we can fall into routine. We can come to Mass, say our prayers, keep up appearances – but underneath it all, we can be falling into spiritual mediocrity.
An excellent thermometer for mediocrity is precisely this: if we feel an inner urge to spread Christ’s Kingdom, to bring others into Christ’s friendship, to share our experience of Christ – as the shepherds did, then we know we are spiritually healthy.
But if we don’t feel that urge – it is a warning sign that our friendship with Christ is growing cold, and that we need to “make haste” to Bethlehem to take a fresh look at our Saviour.
The third verb that Mary used to describe this scene to St Luke is a double verb. St Luke tells us that after the shepherds made haste to come and see Jesus, and after they told their amazing story to everyone who would listen, they ” went back glorifying and praising God for all they had seen ” When we seek Christ and share Christ, he fills our hearts with a deep, inner joy.
The shepherds were so full of this joy that they couldn’t hold it in. Materially and economically nothing had changed. They didn’t have more money, a better job, a nicer house, or even a few more Christmas presents. And yet, if while they were walking back to their flocks someone had asked them, “What did you get for Christmas,” they would have had a ready answer.
They would have said, “We have seen God, our Saviour, and we have seen his Mother. And now we know that God loves us more than we could ever have imagined.” Their bank accounts weren’t affected by their encounter with the newborn Christ, but they were immeasurably richer on Christmas Day than they had been the day before. And if we follow in the shepherds’ footsteps this year, actively seeking Christ in prayer, the Bible, and the sacraments, and bringing Christ’s grace and presence to those around us, we too will experience the true joy of Christmas – all year round.
The shepherds are models for every Christian. They clarify what’s most important in life: seeking Christ, sharing Christ, and rejoicing in Christ. But life for the shepherds didn’t end on Christmas. They had to return to the humdrum of the daily grind. And after today, we will too.
How can we keep the meaning and lessons of Christmas shining in our hearts even after we take down the Christmas lights?
Mary, whose motherhood we remember in a special way today, gives us the secret.
Mary didn’t let life’s hustle and bustle drown out the beauty and wonder of Christmas. St Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” God did not tell Mary his entire plan. We know much more than she did about how everything was going to work out. She had to walk in the dim light of faith, one step at a time, trusting in God, witnessing his action, and seconding it whenever she could. But she paid attention. She pondered in her heart all of God’s gifts to her, all of his words and deeds. Today in Holy Communion we will receive the Body of Christ, which was formed in the womb of Mary.
When we do, let’s ask our spiritual Mother, the Mother of God and of all Christians, to teach us how to take care of the precious faith we have received and renewed during these days, just as she took care of the baby Jesus.