‘Now there were Shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “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 saviour has been born for you, who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests.”
In this moment in time, so familiar to those of us who hear the story at Christmas every year, the ordinary is encountering the extraordinary, the mundane is being interrupted by the unexpected, and the regular is graced with brilliance. Having heard the story so often, we can put ourselves in their shoes. Maybe they felt fear, and gripped their staffs ready to defend themselves, before realising that what was happening before them was a new thing. God was doing something new, and He was inviting them through the angel to be a part of it. Their world had changed. Hopefully this Advent and Christmas season, we will allow our own lives to do the same.
The Shepherds were ordinary men, they had their lives, their routine, they understood their responsibilities: be diligent, dependable and brave. You and I are like these Shepherds, we have our lives and our routines, but at some point we too have an encounter with something outside of what we consider the ordinary. For the Shepherds it was the angel of the Lord proclaiming to them the good news of the Messiah. For you and I it is often an encounter with the Risen Jesus, having as we do the privilege of seeing the fullness of that story.
I was lucky enough to be brought up in a practicing Catholic family. I am the eldest of seven children and growing up the faith was central to who I was and how I lived, it was never something I doubted or questioned and it filled me with great peace and joy. However, once I started Secondary School I really began to pay attention to what people thought about me and my faith. I learned to push it to the side in an attempt to be considered “normal”, to be accepted as just part of the crowd, but try as I did, I was always known as ‘the Catholic girl’. Towards the end of Secondary School I realised how deeply unhappy and unsatisfied I was with life, and I distinctly remember one night telling myself that I was going to be the person I needed growing up, that I wanted to journey with young people, to help foster and encourage them in their faith when the world was trying to do the opposite.
‘When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”’
I knew from that night on that I needed to take every opportunity to act on the faith and hope that God had given to me through Jesus. I was given the opportunity to do just that when I graduated from Secondary School. I was asked to be a leader for my local youth group - I said yes and a few short months later I was helping lead a retreat for Secondary School Students across the Diocese. After this retreat I received lots of ‘thankyous’ from the young people that had attended, telling me that sharing my story had helped them to want to go deeper in their faith, and to live it out in an active way in the world, so that they too could be there for other people and encourage them in their journey.
‘So they 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 to 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.’
Just like the Shepherds, I knew that I had been given great news and that news, was meant to be shared. From there I found myself on a plane heading to Ireland to serve my first year with NET Ministries. In this moment the Shepherds and I both knew that our lives were never going to be the same- we had a duty and a responsibility to go and share the good news.
Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) says, ‘The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, that He has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.’
Having responded to the message of the Angel of the Lord, and encountering Jesus in the manger, the shepherds lived out and embodied these words of Pope Francis, giving us an example of what it means to be intentional disciples.
The Gospel of Luke doesn’t go on to talk about the shepherds and their journey from that point on, but I think, and often imagine them, taking their responsibilities of shepherding sheep and applying those skills to the shepherding and discipling of people. Our lives prepare us for what God has in store for us - nothing is ever wasted. The Shepherds already lived in such a way where they were already diligent, dependable and brave. God takes what is good and makes it greater. You and I are good. That is an inherent truth, we don’t always make good decisions and sometimes our lives can be filled with little side trips that are detours from Gods overall plan and vision for our lives. But even then the lessons we learn along the way through Gods mercy equip us to reach out to other people and to relate to them in their current season of life. Just because the Shepherds were good at their job, doesn’t mean we can necessarily say they were also good people – but God still chose them. God chose me, and God chooses you. Just like the Shepherds He sees your natural gifts and talents, and He chooses to take what is good and make it great. I think it is easy for us to
get caught up in thinking that if God “swoops in” everything about our lives and the person we are will be radically changed in the blink of an eye. Thankfully in my personal experience Gods radical transformation has been more like the rising sun, gently dawning – growing stronger and brighter in the sky until it is fully risen. The sun is no less beautiful when it is hidden, but when God calls it to rise every morning we experience it fully as it was meant to be. God through His angel called the Shepherds to rise, to reach their full potential, to take their pre-existing talents and to refine them, to become shepherds of people and defenders of the faith, to be a witness of the hope given to us – Jesus, our Messiah, born in a cave and laid in a manger.
We are called to rise, to develop our natural gifts and talents and to give them back to God. We are called to be contemporary Shepherds, living our lives as witnesses to the ‘great joy that is for all the people’, which is a life lived in hope, a life lived with Jesus. So, let us too go in haste.