Every year as Christmas stories are retold, I’m drawn to the nativity, deepening themes that surfaced before. Preparing for this Into the Deep contribution, I returned to Luke’s gospel (2:1-20) for a bit of lectio divina.
Then the shepherds returned… stopped me in my prayer-tracks. This year Jesus wanted to show me something new. I backed up a couple verses: all who heard their message that this child was the messiah were amazed… Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. Who did the shepherds tell? When? I moved on in prayer to an Ignatian contemplation. In my imagination this story came to life:
The night sky was clear. Five raggedy young shepherds huddled around a low fire, half-listening to each other, half-listening to their drowsy flock bleat and sigh. Ora was telling star stories, learned from the old Greek woman who taught her sheep-keeping. As boys will do, Caleb and Zev delighted in disrupting, pointing out faces of local characters. Before Aliza decided whether to get silly with them or go all-girls with Ora and Tikva, flames stirred, revealing a shimmering body. Before astonished eyes, a man (or woman, they could never agree after) shifted between childlike and elderly. The stranger settled on something in between, greeting them with open arms, “Don’t be afraid. I’m a messenger with good news!”
“Stay right where you are,” shouted Tikva, leaping to her feet and grabbing her staff, ready to swing if necessary. The dogs growled, but stayed at her signal.
“I’m not going to harm you! I’ve been sent to tell you that tonight, very near Bethlehem, the messiah is born! You’ll find the baby on the outskirts of town lying in a manger.” Eyes blazing, she (or he) was joined by a multitude of light-beings dancing among the stars, singing of peace, and praising God’s glory. The shepherds open their mouths as one, inhaling sight and song into their souls. Darkness returned, but celestial excitement swirled. ( The rest of the story …)
Like light strengthening slowly at dawn, as I reviewed the movements of my prayer, I became aware of shifting emotions from apprehension to relief to joy and gratitude. Shepherds acted on the angel’s message with faith and hope, racing to look for confirmation, joy-filled to discover signs just as described. Mary and Joseph stepped out in trust to have the child, making a life together because of angel visits and dreams, relieved and grateful when the shepherds arrived.
God knows we need signs of encouragement, especially during long winter nights that seem darker than usual. I invite you to recall a time when you received good news or confirmation of a big decision this year, then share that story with another. We never know when our reaching out will be a welcome affirmation of someone else’s “yes” to God. In a card or over the phone, online or in person, how might you encourage someone this Christmas?
- Take a five minutes to set the mood for praying with the scripture or shepherds’ story by listening to Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds based on a poem by Sara Teasdale. The piece’s ethereal beauty always quiets and expands my heart with grateful awe. Reflect on comments from the vocal artists of Cantus.
- Read the O Antiphons or sing the Advent carol, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Pause on verse five, the antiphon for December 21st, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Pray for the grace to see and share God’s eternal light.
- Learn about Georges Lemaître, S.J, a Jesuit priest-astronomer contemplating the heavens around the same time as poet Teasdale composed “Stars”. Fr. Lemaître developed a scientific theory on the origins of the universe prior to Edwin Hubble and his “Big Bang Theory”.
Photo by Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash