WHAT THE SHEPHERDS FOUND.
Christmas, at Dawn. Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20.
AIM: To instill a sense of wonder and joy at the incarnation.
The world=s great religions, someone has said, are all about the same thing: our search for God. To this general statement there is an important exception. Christianity, and its parent, Judaism, are concerned not with our search for God, but with God=s search for us. At Christmas we celebrate God=s search, and his coming to us, in a special way. The readings at this Mass give us answers to three important questions about God=s coming. They tell us how God comes, when he comes, and why.
How does God come?
He comes in very ordinary and humble circumstances, to very ordinary and humble people. There was nothing dramatic about the birth of Mary=s child at
Few people took any notice C only a few outsiders, and three crackpot eccentrics from God
knows where. Bethlehem
Shepherds were outsiders in the ancient world. Without fixed abode, like gypsies today, they were mistrusted by respectable people. Since they frequently grazed their flocks on other people=s land, shepherds were considered too dishonest to be witnesses in court. Because their irregular lives made it impossible for them to observe the strict Sabbath and dietary laws, observant Jews held them in disdain.
The so-called Wise Men, whose visit we commemorate at Epiphany, were eccentrics: astrologers of some kind from God knows where, who set off on a madcap journey, following a star. We call them wise. To their contemporaries they were screwballs who were not playing with a full deck.
Nor was the scene which these visitors found at
as attractive as we make it appear in our Christmas cribs. If Jesus were born
today, it would probably be in a cardboard shack with a roof of corrugated iron
in Africa, or somewhere in Latin America, without electricity or water: smelly,
drafty, and cold. Bethlehem
How does God come? He comes in ordinary and humble surroundings, to people who live on the margin of society. That is how God came on the first Christmas. It is how he comes today.
When does God come?
He comes when we least expect him C when people have given up expecting him altogether. Matthew and Luke emphasize Jesus= descent from the great King David, and Jesus= birth Ain David=s city@ (Mt 1:17; Lk 1:27, 2: 4 & 11). They wanted to show that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, whose birth Aof the house of David@ the prophets had long foretold.
Almost six centuries before Jesus= birth, however, David=s royal house had come to an end. The revival of his long extinct dynasty after so great an interval was, humanly speaking, impossible. Moreover, the imperial census, which brought Joseph and Mary to David=s city,
, was a humiliating reminder to
their people that the nation over which David had once ruled as king was now
governed by a foreign emperor across the sea. Bethlehem Rome,
was the center of the world into which Jesus was born. At the very moment in
which that world was set in motion by an imperial decree from its center, God
was acting in an unimportant village on the edge of the empire in an obscure
event from which we continue, twenty centuries later, to number our years. Jerusalem
Unthinkable? Impossible? Precisely! That is how God normally acts. He comes to us when we are least expecting him; when we have ceased expecting him at all. He comes in ways that stagger the imagination and demolish our conception of the possible. The creator of the universe comes as a tiny baby, born of a virgin.
Why does he do it? Why does God come at all?
To these questions our second reading gives us the answer: AWhen the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, [he saved us] not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.@
God=s coming is not a reward for services rendered. He chose to come to us at the first Christmas for the same reason he comes to us today: not because we are good enough, but because he is so good, and so loving, that he wants to share his love with us, his unworthy, erring, and sinful children.
This explains too why he chose outsiders and eccentrics as the first witnesses of his coming. Before him we are all outsiders, all eccentrics. Before God we are all marginal, as the shepherds were, and the wise men. It is His love, and His alone, which draws us in from the darkness and cold of the margin to the light and warmth of the center.
It is because God gave us his love at the first Christmas that we give gifts to one another at this season. The love God gave us then, and continues to give us today, is neither distant, nor abstract. God=s love is a person who is very close to us. His name is Jesus Christ.