Fifteen years ago I stood beside Pope St, John Paul II in Mange Square, Bethlehem. He looked out at the people gathered there for Mass with Him and said: when I look at you, I feel I am looking at the direct descendants of the Shepherds who heard the massage of the Angels that First Christmas night”. As I look at you tonight, in my heart I see all of you here and all watching on Television, I feel I am looking at the spiritual descendants of those shepherds who first heard the Angels sing: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.
Those shepherds were struck with fear when they heard the message: I proclaim good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David, a savior has been born to you who is Christ and Lord! But then fear changed to awe as these simple, unassuming persons on the very edge of society are told how they would recognize the Messiah: This will be the sign: You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. If ever there was a message filled with contradictions, this was it! The long awaited Messiah and King heralded by angels telling these simple outcasts that that the Messiah, longed for by all Israel, could be found in a stable: in a stable! A baby! Born to an impoverished virgin maiden with her elderly spouse.
But – and here is where it all comes together – they believed. Scared but curious; overwhelmed but trusting the angel’s message; they went off themselves to Bethlehem and discovered just what was promised; a child and his mother and Joseph. And THEY BELIEVED. And YOU TOO BELIEVE! You know it is true and you are here because YOU BELIEVE! That is why you are the spiritual descendants of those simple shepherds on the hillside. Faith! Faith in God’s promise. Faith that the child born of Mary is truly the Son of God. AND HE IS. This child, born as one of us, is truly Son of God. He is truly born of a virgin. He enters life, just as you and I have, so that he could accomplish what he alone could do: make us sharers in the life and love of God the Father and God the Son. For this child is God's own Son. And JOYFULLY ACCEPTING THE WILL OF His Father, he came as one like us so that God the Father might see and love in us what he sees and loves in His Son.
Then as now the drumbeat of the world’s affairs goes on and on. Then it was the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus commanding the whole world, local governors and satraps exercising their own power. It is no different today. The powerful and the privileged continue on creating more and more bizarre scenarios of life and proclaiming to us who know better that they are this world’s saviors. The dark night that enveloped the shepherds was a passing moment compared to the darkness that surrounds us today in societies bent on self destruction or obsessed with amusements that lead to death of body and spirit.
Surrounded by the dark of night, the shepherds rejoice in the light which is the Glory of God, a light that shone forth from that stable, the light who has a name: Jesus the true light of the world. That light shines tonight for you and me. It dispels the darkness that tries to mislead us and our contemporaries. But we are not afraid of the dark! Like the shepherds we stand at the manger. We look upon the mother and her child. We rejoice that the true light is real, is present, is given this night to us and offered every night and day to one and all. Every child born into the world changes the history of humanity. But this child, and this child alone, has come to change humanity itself and make our humanity a sharer in his divinity.
How much Isaiah longed for this, hoped for this and prophesied its coming: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shown…For a child is born to us; a son is given to us. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-forever, Prince of Peace. God with Us. Emmanuel! Jesus the Christ!
We, the spiritual descendants of the shepherds, have received the message and have let it enter our hearts and shape our lives. We know that the Christ who is born of Mary comes into the world to save us. But not just us. As St. Leo the Great tells us: No one is left outside this awesome gift of God’s Son. No one is excluded! God wishes to wrap us all in the mantle of Mary. He wishes everyone without exception to find in this baby the one who came to do the will of the Father, the one who came not to condemn the world but to save the world.
The first shepherds took heart from their pilgrimage of faith to the manger of Jesus. They returned to their lives as shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. This night we share their joy. This night we have seen the child and have been embraced by his mother. This night we too, spiritual shepherds, must glorify God: Worship Him and praise God through our words and deeds. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we have seen the mercy of God lying in a manger. Recipients of that mercy, we are called to be spiritual shepherds to one and all. As we have received so must we give. As we have been blessed, so we must bless. As we have been saved, we must become instruments of Christ’s saving love to the neighbor and friend but also to stranger and enemy, to those who share our values and even more to those who have become indifferent or even hostile.
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring peace. May we be the bearers of Christ’s peace this coming year because the grace of God has appeared to us this night, saving all, calling us to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age of ours. For the one who is born this night is the one who gave himself for us. This night He delivers us from all lawlessness to make of us a people of his own eager to do what is good.
NOS CUM PROLE PIA, BENEDICAT VIRGO MARIA. WITH YOUR HOLY CHILD, BLESS US O VIRGIN MARY!