In the light of the Gospel we’ve just heard, I want to reflect on the experience of the shepherds. I think there are connections there for us.
Today’s the 8th day of Christmas, a second Christmas really, and the Gospel takes us back to Christmas night. It’s the well-known story: the shepherds minding their sheep outside Bethlehem, the appearance of an angel, the message of the birth of “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord”, and then the angelic song: “Glory to God in the highest”. Today’s Gospel follows on from there. The shepherds decide to go and see. They go into the village, and they find Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger. They do see him. They pass on the angel’s message. Everyone is astonished. Mary ponders their words in her heart. And then the shepherds go back to their sheep, praising God for what they’ve seen and heard and its correspondence with what they had heard from the angel. A well-known story and from long ago. But we are part of it. It fits what we’ve been living through spiritually since Advent and will be as this New Year unfolds.
The word “angel” means “messenger” and Advent has been a kind of angel to us. The Advent Angel messaged us again and again: Get ready, Someone is coming, Someone is about to be born. And Christmas did come. Through the liturgy, we “saw”, we “heard” – the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, the unexpected Saviour. “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”. We have been to the House of Bread, we are in it now. The Christ who is born has become our Bread; he is real in the Eucharist. We’ve relived the mystery. We’ve sung the Gloria with the angels. We’ve found Mary and Joseph and the child in the manger. The crib’s before our eyes. We’ve kept Christmas. But the story moves on and our lives move on. The shepherds go back to their sheep and we to our work, our schools, our studies.
Please God, though, the Holy Spirit has touched us. We can return with an injection of gratitude in us. Like the shepherds, we have “seen and heard” something and felt the fresh presence of God, something new laid in our hearts’ manger. It’s striking how the shepherds say: “it was exactly as they had been told”, i.e. by the angel. Angels visit us: The Bible is an angel, a messenger of God. The Church’s proclamation of the Incarnation, God with us, is the message of an angel; the Church too, in her teaching, is a messenger of God. And the Liturgy also. Today, this Octave Day of Christmas, the day of Mary the Mother, has its own grace: the converging of our faith (which comes to us from outside, from others, from the Church) and our own personal experience. “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The grace of today is the burrowing of Christmas into our lives and out of them to others. Christ has been born for us, for me, and we reborn in him. This is Christmas now. This is the real Christmas. This is Christmas translated from past to present.
The 1st reading, chosen to mark the beginning of the civil year, contains the priestly blessing of Aaron. The shepherds must have felt that they had, through this Child, been blessed directly. God had “uncovered his face” to them: the face of this Child. God had given them his “peace”: peace in person. God had been “gracious” to them in this Child “full of grace and truth”. The great blessing that God has given us is Jesus himself.
And the shepherds “went back”, back to their work, to their ordinary lives. They went back blessed – and blessing. The blessing they felt on themselves, they must have, quite naturally, passed on – even to their sheep.
So, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may it be for us, for us: for our lives, for the worlds we live in, for the year ahead. May something of Christmas overflow from us, what we have seen radiate from us, what we have heard re-sound from us. May the music linger on! What’s the point otherwise? “God sent his Son”, says St Paul, so that we be adopted as sons…
And here’s a last thing. The shepherds must often have thought back to their visit to the stable: the child in the manger, Joseph standing there, and the mysterious woman, “treasuring” what they had said, and “pondering it in her heart.” Her image must have come back to her. They must have wondered what kind of person she was. perhaps they heard rumours of a conception that took a unique form, that didn’t involve a man but a “Holy Spirit”. And as they thought more and more about who this child was, so their esteem for her would have risen. It has been the same in the history of the Church. As the Church has treasured the mystery of the Child, so she has appreciated the woman who mothered him. “God sent his Son”, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, says the Creed, and so this simple, thoughtful woman, just a slip of a girl perhaps, can be called Mother of God. And since the child is born “for us”, so the mother is “for us” too. She is Mother of God and Mother of the Church as today’s post-Communion says.
Yes, the grace of today is that Christmas become an experience, a reality in us, for others in the year ahead – repeats itself in us like the octave note of a musical scale. And so too – today’s Collect says it – Mary’s motherhood, experienced as intercession. May this be the blessing that comes on us and the whole world today!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1st January 2024