Tag Archive | Christmas

An Old Christmas Shepherd Remembers

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(Mathias Huesma)

          I’m an old man now.  Probably don’t have many more days to live on this good earth.  But a good earth it’s been, and a good life.  Simple.  Hard.  But good.  I wish I could tell you that I’ve resolved all the questions I’ve carried with me through my life, but that I cannot do.  I still have questions.  Many.  About life, about God, about the baby I was so privileged to be among the first to see. 

          Does that surprise you?  You know my story well.  How blessed I was, you no doubt think, to be the first, the very first(!) to visit the holy couple and the holy child lying in the manger.  And yes, blessed I was, to be sure.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my questions down through the years.

          I was so young on that magical, mystical night.  Just a young man learning shepherd life from my father and uncle and a few others from our small village.  I didn’t expect much from my life.  We had always been poor, and life had always been harsh.  I just assumed it would be that way for me as well.  Scraping by.  Always looked down on by those better positioned in life.  Some even said that if one of us shepherds should fall into a pit, no one should feel obligated to rescue us because we were simply worthless. 

          But I didn’t let all that bother me—at least not most of the time.  I wasn’t unhappy.  I wasn’t particularly happy either.  I would live and die a shepherd, and that was that.  I did wonder about God sometimes out there under the stars.  Did God care about me?  Did God look at us shepherds as those around us looked at us?  Who knew?  I listened to my mother and my father tell the old, old stories about God and God’s people who had lived long before us.  About Abraham and Moses.  About King David who had started life as a shepherd and ended up the greatest of all kings.  About prophets who told of a wondrous day yet to come when a Son of David would be born, a Messiah who would bring peace and joy for all people on earth, even for shepherds.  “Oh yeah!  Tell me another one,” I used to mutter to myself, but of course I never said that aloud, as my parents would have been mortified and shocked.

          Anyway, I remember that on that special night on the hillside my uncle began to play a gentle melody on his reed pipe, and I was finding it hard to stay awake.  But suddenly our dark sky erupted.  Our night world became as bright as a sunny noonday.  No, considerably brighter.  And a strange and brilliant heavenly creature was singing to us about a baby born in nearby Bethlehem, a baby who was our Messiah, a Savior for us and for all people.  “Go and see for yourself,” the angelic being told us.  “You’ll find this Savior-baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.”  Messiah in a manger?  Where we shepherds put our babies?  Was he serious?  

          But no chance to ask any questions, for just then a whole host of angels burst on the scene in a glorious hymn of praise:  “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people.”*  We felt so honored!  A heavenly choir just for us.  And the heavenly being had addressed us shepherds as though we had some dignity.  Had invited us shepherds to be witnesses to this amazing event!   Needless to say, we quickly appointed one of us to stay with the sheep, and the rest of us went as fast as we could to Bethlehem to find this precious child. 

          A truly strange and wondrous night it was.  I re-lived it over and over again as that baby grew into manhood.  I began to hear exciting things.  Tales of blind people receiving their sight.  Of the deaf suddenly hearing again.  Yes! I thought.  This really is our Messiah, our King.  The One who will level the mountains of injustice and lift up those of us who are lowly and poor.  I made sure I was part of that jubilant crowd that welcomed him as he rode on that donkey into Jerusalem.  This was it!  Our time!  Our King!  Memories of that Bethlehem night resonated in every “Alleluia!” that I shouted with the others along the way. 

          But almost the next thing I knew, I found myself staring at our King hanging on a cross like a common criminal.  How could this be?!  What had gone so wrong?  Had that wondrous night, that angel visitation been just some cruel joke?  There on that cross hung all our dreams and all our hopes.  Dashed.  Gone.  I bowed in utter bewilderment and sorrow. 

          In the weeks and months after that God-forsaken day, it’s true, I did hear strange tales of an empty tomb and hints that the one crucified had been seen alive by a number of people.  But I never myself saw him again, so I didn’t really know just what to think.

          But in these later years, I have been pondering over and over again the passage from our sacred writings which has always perplexed and bothered me.  The passage about Messiah being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”   About Messiah being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”   And I have begun to wonder.  Is it just possible that something profound was happening on that cross?  Had our God, in all the horror of that day, somehow been at work to bring about the promise the angels had sung to us shepherds?  

          It’s all a bit too deep for me, and I don’t know how to put it all together.  My shepherd’s hut is crammed with all my thoughts and all my questions, and sometimes there seems little room for faith and trust.  But I do continue to ponder and try to trust in my own simple way.  Trust that somehow God was at work on that cross.  Trust that God will someday, somehow, complete what I saw begun so long ago in that Bethlehem stable.  How, I do not know.  But every now and then, sometimes even in the darkest of nights, when trust can be so elusive, I do believe I hear a faint echo of that haunting angel song, and I find myself singing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people!”  

***

*alternative reading (NRSV)

Packing Up Christmas

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I pack it all away,

the lights, the ornaments;

the stress, the crèche, the candles—

tuck it all in boxes crammed with

memories—some merry, others

not so very; make room once more for

ordinary days of all that is to come,

waiting now beneath the frozen ground.

*

The carols, push and stuff them as I may,

refuse the box; insistent grace notes

dangle in the turning year, echo in the

empty crevices of life, hum through days

icicled with worries, pain, or simply green

with far too much–too much of everything

that clings and freezes up our souls.

*

“God with us,” the carols sing across

our smiles, our salty tears; “God with us”

through all the year until December

reappears to hang our Christmas lights on

hopeful trees to sing yet once again

that promise old but ever new:

God tucked away in a manger,

of all places, to laugh and dance and

weep with us through greens and

yellows of the year, in the bleak

midwinter days, through all the noisy

bluster of our lives; star of wonder

in all our silent nights; our

silent nights holy, our

silent nights not.

 

“Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for St. Joseph

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St. Joseph

Guido Reni (1575-1642)

***

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:


‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 ***

     Thank you!  I am indeed honored to receive this high prize, and I want to begin my remarks with thanks to all who helped me win this Oscar.  I believe that’s the usual protocol—yes?  I’ve been watching through the years, of course, but from quite a distance, so I’m not terribly sure of myself here.  But I do want to do this properly, so let me start by saying thanks to my wife Mary, to the angel who came to my dreams, to St. Matthew and St. Luke for writing me into their script, and to the Grand Director who cast me in my supporting role in the epic “Christmas Story.”

     But now, having proffered my thanks, I would like to add a confession.  Yes, a confession.  A confession because from what I’ve seen and heard during the last 2000 years, I think most people have considered me a pretty saintly man.  A bit of a plodding, milk-toasty old graybeard, to be sure, but a man, nonetheless, of deep, unquestioning faith, and a man who thought little of himself and only wanted to do what was right for his beloved wife and her son.  Even without the Oscar, I’ve been on a pedestal of sorts. 

     Tonight I’d like to come off that pedestal and set the record straight.  Yes, I did what was right in taking care of Mary, but, truth be told, I wasn’t always happy doing what I was asked to do.  I was often brooding, in fact, brooding about personal disappointments I had to accept as “Christmas Story” played itself out.  And unswerving faith?  Well, not exactly.  Under the halo you see in almost all the paintings of me, I certainly had my doubts—plenty of them, even though these were never recorded.  Thank goodness Guido Reni left the halo out of his painting! 

     So here’s my story.  My family was very proud of our ancestry, and with good reason.  Even without the aid of Ancestry.com, we were able to trace our lineage all the way back to King David a thousand years before our time.  This was so very important because we all believed that the Messiah God had promised to send, the Messiah who would sit again on David’s throne, was to be born the son of a father who carried the Great King’s DNA.  As young teens, my cousins and I used to wonder if one of us just might turn out to be that blessed person.  Used to wonder just which village girl would be a suitable wife to possibly bear our precious child-king.

      My choice of Mary had everyone’s approval, and she and I were looking forward to our life together, dreaming about our children and wondering if maybe, just maybe, I was to be The One who would father the awaited Messiah.  Yes, we were happy kids, and all felt so right in our young lives.  Until.  Until the day she blushingly announced to me that she was pregnant.  Of course, she told me about an angel and claimed the child was part of some divine mystery beyond her understanding.  I remember that she was clearly embarrassed and somewhat distraught about the whole thing, but I remember, too, that she also seemed quite excited—even told me she felt blessed!  Now, I have to tell you, that was pretty hard to swallow.  She felt blessed to be carrying a child—but not my child?  After careful deliberation, I decided, as St. Matthew puts it, simply to “dismiss her quietly.”

      And then that dream.  The angel telling me that Mary’s child was somehow divinely conceived and was the One for whom we had been waiting.  Mary’s child.  Not my child.  And then the angel instructing me to go ahead with the marriage.   I was relieved, of course, to learn that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful, but I was also terribly disappointed.  For even if it was all true, and Mary’s son really did become our king—and yes, I confess that I had plenty of doubts about that, since all I had to go on was a dream and my fiancée’s talk of some mystical experience— but even if it all did turn out to be true, I knew my personal dreams were shattered and the honor I had so long coveted was not to be.

      Of course, I did as the angel told me to do, and you know the rest of the story.  The birth of our High Hopes in that Bethlehem manger.  The long flight to Egypt to avoid Herod’s sword.  And then the parenting years in Nazareth.  None of it easy—not for Mary, not for me.  There were times when I had more questions than I had answers, times when I thought I must have just imagined that angel in my dreams, times when God seemed more unreal than real.  I mean, a barn for Messiah’s birth?  And those miserable, lonely immigrant years in Egypt?  How could I not wonder if God really was at work in our lives?  Believe me, there were many, many dark, dark days.

      Overall, I think I did a pretty good job of supporting my wife through all of this.  And I appreciate the kudos I have gotten through the years and the honor of this night.  But I’m grateful also for this opportunity to tell you some of what was never recorded—the questions and doubts I wrestled with, the bitterness I sometimes felt as I watched my dream get swallowed up by God’s Bigger Dream

       So.  Now I’ve come clean, and that has felt good.  Thank you for listening to my story.  And to all you Josephs out there (male or female), all you tarnished saints trying to support God’s dream while wrestling with your sometimes profound doubts and disappointments, I want you to know that I do understand what you are going through, and every day, along with many other Josephs who have struggled through the centuries, I am cheering you on, praying for you, and hoping you’ll find the strength and courage you need to carry on.  For “Christmas Story” isn’t over.  The drama continues, and your role is so important, even when it doesn’t feel that way.  Please know that you are not alone, and please know as well that I accept this award tonight, not just for myself, but for each one of you Josephs who continue in your supporting roles.  God bless you all, and thank you again.