December 23, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The simplicity of the shepherds can lead us to Christ

The first announcement of the Savior came to shepherds near Bethlehem. We romanticize those Bethlehem shepherds around our crib sets, but in those days folks looked down on those shoddy shepherds. God’s message first came to simple men of the field. We like that touch. Maybe simple people are more likely to open their hearts to God’s mysterious love.

A couple of decades ago, the communist regime that threatened the free world was ultimately brought down by simple people. The communist denial that people need God led to an arrogant moral and spiritual deficiency in the communist educational, political and economic system. The system was doomed to failure. Simple people of faith and common sense prevailed in Eastern Europe.

Are there similar phenomena today? Pope Benedict XVI would say yes there are—but they are more subtle than the flagrant public claims of communism. Secular materialism has led to a new paganism and indifference to spirituality, morality and even life itself. There is an exaggerated confidence that humanity can build a more perfect world without God.

There is a notion that no authority can claim there is absolute truth. If no one can teach with authority, morality and doctrine become matters of opinion. The result is moral anarchy. Moral norms and faith itself are ridiculed.

A cult of consumerism implies that happiness is found in the possession of more and more things. Things become controlling gods. Simple people rejected communism because it demanded faith in itself rather than in God. Will simple people reject the cult of materialistic consumerism that in a more subtle fashion makes the same claim? Simple people like the shepherds know we need God. Surely we are simple enough to claim our freedom for God.

They say the shepherds of Bethlehem may have been the ones who raised the unblemished lambs that were offered in Temple sacrifice to God each morning and evening. It’s a nice thought—the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who would be slain to take away the sins of the world. There is a connection between Bethlehem and Calvary. Thirty-three years later, on a criminal’s cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem, the same Savior died. Darkness covered the earth and the Temple curtain was torn down the middle. At his death, as at his birth, there is poverty and poetry. There is suffering and there is the divine flourish: The sun was eclipsed and the Temple curtain torn in two.

In the story of the birth and death of the Son of God, there is hard, cold poverty and there is divine poetry. There is the predictable human reality like census-taking for taxes, and there is the upside-down surprise of God appearing first to simple shepherds. There was no room in the Bethlehem inn, but angels came to sing! They killed him on a criminal’s cross, but the Temple veil was rent in protest. Can we ignore a God of poverty and poetry?

Even now, Jesus is among us in simplicity and poverty. We need only look into each others’ eyes and into our own souls to catch a fleeting glimpse of Jesus in our workaday lives. And is it not true that once in awhile he surprises us with some wonder?

And yet contradiction continues: In our own country, millions of innocent, voiceless babies are deprived of their right to live. Real human life is aborted. The homeless poor remain helpless, racism survives and too many are terrified by the poverty of loneliness. We permit promiscuity. Drug lords victimize the lonely, especially our youth. Jesus is among us in these icons of his suffering even now.

There was no room in the Bethlehem inn for Jesus. There was room for him on a cross. He wanted a place in the overcrowded hearts of our human family; he could not find it. And his search continues. Do we open our hearts to accept him? If we are to see him in each other, we must first meet him in prayer and in the sacraments of the Church. There is no other way.

In the Bethlehem story of Jesus and even in the story of his cross, there is the divine flourish and the cause for our joy at Christmas. The babe of Bethlehem was and is the Savior of the world. Jesus conquered sin and death on the cross. The ultimate divine flourish is the victory of Jesus over death. It began in that Bethlehem stable.

We pray for the shepherd’s simplicity of heart, mind and soul so that we may kneel before Christ and say, “Jesus I need you.”

That is my Christmas wish and prayer for all of us! †


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