“In our society Christmas is an invitation to think and act not in our own interest, rather to locate and value those who are not included, who are currently struggling and do not feel appreciated” – Archbishop Neary
To appreciate where we are this Christmas, might I suggest that we focus on four areas or groups in the story of the birth of Jesus: Caesar, Mary & Joseph, the Shepherds and the wise men.
Sometimes if we locate ourselves in the shoes of another person we get better insight into that person but also into ourselves. As we endeavour to come to terms with our identity as a follower of Jesus Christ then how we look on the birth of Christ will help to establish a sense of identity for us. We are familiar with the story that Caesar Augustus ordered a census of the world which he had conquered. This census had implications for the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Thirdly, a group on which I feel might be worth focusing will be the shepherds. As we celebrate Christ’s birthday we might identify with and see ourselves in these personalities.
Firstly, Caesar. Caesar Augustus liked to be in control. Counting heads in a census was important for the collection of taxes and gave him a sense of power and undisputed authority. How often do we feel that we can go it alone – that we are not dependent on others, that we can make our own plans and carry them out? Caesar, however, did not take account of the bigger picture that God had in mind. The census that Caesar commissioned was part of God’s plan which the Prophets had foretold namely that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So it is because of the census that Mary and Joseph travelled from their home town of Nazareth south to Bethlehem. In our own situation we may feel confident, that we have a plan but we may be missing part of that plan or failing to see it as part of God’s bigger plan.
Focusing on Mary and Joseph: They had to make the journey from their home town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of about 80 miles and for someone who was about to give birth to Jesus it must have been an arduous journey indeed. How often do we feel exhausted by our journeys: the mountains and hills we have to climb, the rough terrain which we have to negotiate, the obstacles we have to surmount. Like Mary and Joseph we too may be wondering, waiting and puzzled. On our journeys we may be coping with illness, with the death of a dear one, with the loss of a job, with a disappointment, we fear that a family member may be taking a wrong road. These and other issues will be part of our journey to Bethlehem this year. It is not the geographical distance but rather you might say the spiritual distance in faith.
Thirdly, the shepherds: we find this story only in Saint Luke’s gospel. The shepherds give an indication of the reversal of expectations which is central to the Gospel story. The shepherds have been sent to the manger to find the Lord who is a source of joy for all people. In the shepherds’ story, Luke demonstrates the presence of faith in the most unlikely of places. The ones who see and hear the choirs of angels on that Christmas night are not the religious leaders but rather the shepherds who come to recognise the saviour. In the society of the day the shepherds represent the poor, downtrodden, the marginalised. They were viewed as untrustworthy. The focus on the shepherds shows a solidarity between Christ and the marginalised of society. The concentration on the shepherds shows that Jesus is identifying with ordinary people. This for us is a note of encouragement. At times in our society we find that we are helpless to bring about a change for the better. At such times it is very tempting to abandon hope.
The shepherds were going about their duty, keeping watch over their flock. Their attention was called to the song of the angels and they were struck with fear. The angels inform the astonished shepherds that the Messiah/Saviour has been born a few hundred yards away in the city of David, called Bethlehem. The shepherds were huddled together in the dark, isolated on the hillside, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. It is hardly surprising that they were the first to hear the Christmas message. They are ready for it; they need it. As people on the margins they are quick to pick up the signals and to hear the good news of an alternative, of another kind of world where they would be more welcome and belong. In our society Christmas is an invitation to think and act not in our own interest, rather to locate and value those who are not included, who are currently struggling and do not feel appreciated.
While the story of the wise men comes a little later with the Feast of the Epiphany, yet their visit to the manger has an important message for us. For the past few months people have been praying that scientists, researchers and medical people would discover a vaccine which would help us to address the present Covid-19 crisis. We thank God for the gifts which he has shared with those people enabling them to make the discoveries which have resulted in this vaccine. Saint Paul recognised in Jesus Christ the wisdom of God. All human wisdom is but an echo and expression of that wisdom and finds its ultimate purpose when it is related to Jesus Christ. As we journey to Bethlehem, whether with the Shepherds or the wise men, we do so carrying our cares and concerns, our gifts and talents and we place them with the Lord as we ask him to help us to always utilise them for the benefit of others. Amen.
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