by Fr. Keith Branson, C.PP.S.

On Monday, December 21, it was warm enough to sit outside and look at the star of Bethlehem around sunset. Quite the cosmic event, perhaps the original star was such a conjunction. Looking at the day fade and the stars come out reminded me of growing up on a farm and watching the night sky emerge. It has always been a timeless feeling for me.

We had sheep on our farm. I could tell you a lot about sheep, but that’s not important to the story I want to tell. Sheep need to be looked after in the field: there are lots of predators to keep an eye out for. Of course, in the field, sitting around the fire, looking at the night sky, there’s lots of storytelling.

The shepherds are ordinary people who are plugged into an old tradition. They see a fantastic sight: an angel came to talk to them, they see the angel choirs singing (this is a great section in Messiah!), and they go into town to see the sign promised them. When they get to town, there are probably questioning eyes. These are country boys, and town dwellers would think them rough, dangerous, uncivilized: only a group of soldiers (who would come looking for food and plunder) would be less welcome. We don’t know what Mary and Joseph would be thinking, but they make room for the shepherds, let them experience the mystery. The shepherds in Bethlehem, like the women at the garden tomb on Easter Sunday morning, are suspect witnesses, whose testimony wouldn’t be accepted in court, but who God entrusts with the Word. Like every Old Testament prophet, who had a flaw of one kind or another, they and not the most able and talented are entrusted with God’s Word.

We are called to be witnesses to Immanuel, God with us, and I’m sure a lot of us are aware of our flaws, would consider ourselves suspect witnesses. But that’s how God operates, choosing the lowly, choosing the imperfect, choosing those on the outside, to show His presence. It’s counter-cultural in our time: when folks don’t like the message, they attack the messenger, so having a good messenger seems crucial. But that’s how God always works. He calls us to be the shepherds of our times, to be the suspect messengers, but the message we have is the most important. Immanuel, God is with us. It’s overwhelming, as it was with the original shepherds, fantastic, but it’s also wonderful. Jesus is with us every time we celebrate the Eucharist, Jesus is with us every time we hear the Word, Jesus is with us every time 2 or more are gathered, Jesus is with us every day. That is the message and the message is always the most important thing! We are the witnesses of Christ among us, and that’s fantastic!