From the Shepherd’s Fear to their Curiosity

By Dr. Derrick Witherington, Director of Liturgy, Gesu Parish and Adjunct Instructor of Theology, Marquette University

The Church provides us with four different Mass texts for the Solemnity of Christmas, each with its own ambiance and focus. When I was growing up my family would always attend Midnight Mass (“Mass during the Night” as the Missal puts it) and so I became very well acquainted with the beautiful and well known readings proclaiming that the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” and how the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest” to the sleepy and dumbfounded shepherds. As life went on and I began working as a sacristan and liturgist, however, I became acquainted with the other three Masses; the Vigil Mass for the early evening of Christmas Eve, the Mass at Dawn on Christmas Morning, as well as the Mass During the Day for later Masses. While the Mass During the Night remains important and sentimental for me, I’ve grown to consider the Mass at Dawn to be my favorite of the four, and it’s this Mass which will be the focus of this reflection.

When it comes to ambiance, I have always experienced this Mass as being a relatively calm and reflective one, positioned between the jubilation of Midnight Mass and later Christmas Day Masses. The Church is usually dark and a bit on the chilly side as the heaters haven’t quite kicked in yet, but as Mass progresses (and the sun rises higher in the sky), the church fills with light — and heat as the boilers kick in. The day has come, Christ the Sun of Justice is born, and the shadows of the early morning dawn have given way to a clearness of vision. Indeed, the liturgical rhythm of Christmas Day as reflected in the Missal reflects this process quite well.

At Midnight the focus is on the “wow factor” of what has just taken place, perhaps reflected best in how the Gospel ends rather abruptly with the angels’ song (not including the reaction of the shepherds to it). The Mass at Dawn picks up the story with the shepherds deciding to go to Bethlehem where they “found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” After this, the Gospel goes on to relate how first “made known the message” of what they had seen before they returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.” Notice what’s happened: the shepherds go from being terrified and then dumbfounded by a vision of angels, to curious journeyers to Bethlehem, to the first evangelists who proclaim what they have seen to anyone willing to listen. One can perhaps read this narrative as demonstrating how the shepherds gained insight into the truth of what has happened in Bethlehem, a process which began with fear, continued with normal curiosity, and then culminated in the shepherds realizing that the angel was right and that the messiah had been born after all. This culmination, however, doesn’t stop in a mental realization, rather, it is expressed in deeds: the sharing of the Good News to any and everyone.

There’s a parallel, I think, with how the shepherds reacted to the way we come to a deeper faith in our own lives of discipleship. Oftentimes we come to faith or have our faith deepened by experiences which catch us off guard, interrupting our normal ways of proceeding, and perhaps even terrifying us: the death of a loved one, an unexpected job offer, or even a global pandemic which requires us to celebrate Christmas in a strange and new way. When such experiences happen we probably act a bit like the shepherds, initially scared and then numbed. Even though such a reaction is a normal one, God invites us in them to open ourselves to ways his love and grace may be at work despite the initial pain and confusion. I think that it would have been very easy for the shepherds to ignore the angels’ message, instead staying in their fields and perhaps thinking they had just experienced a strange dream or a hallucination brought about by their grogginess or boredom. Nevertheless they dare to journey from the fields to the town of Bethlehem — objectively an unexpected and foolish thing to do as their flocks would have been left in the fields unattended. The Shepherds took a chance to enter into a potentially awkward situation for themselves and dangerous one for their flocks and livelihoods. Indeed, they didn’t shy away from their fear and confusion, rather, they entered more fully into it, open to the surprises God had in store, and encountered divine grace in a way which was totally new and unexpected.

Like the shepherds, we are invited to be open to finding God in unexpected, strange, painful, and initially terrifying experiences. God invites us to journey to the various “Bethlehems” we encounter in our own life experiences and there be invited to understand grace in new and more profound ways. At each “Bethelehem” along the way, if we’re open to it, we will find opportunities to deepen our relationship with God and also come to better understand ourselves. This is a life-long process which fully culminates at the end of our lives when we, in the words of St. John Henry Newman, journey “from shadows and images into the Truth.”

A blessed Christmas to you all and a healthy and happy New Year filled with many opportunities to grow in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

Reflection inspired by the Dec. 25, 2020 readings: Is 62:11–12, Ti 3:4–7, Lk 2:15–20.

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