Saturday, December 29, 2007

Solemnity of the Humble Shepherds

In 2003 I had reason to preach based on the propers used by the Polish National Catholic Church, in which the first Sunday after Christmas bears the name placed above as the title.

Luke 2: 15-20

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Saint Luke was a physician, and his writings make him the Charles Dickens of the New Testament. By that I mean that he always takes into account human frailty, and our need for healing. His writings have been very important in the history of the Western world, in helping to create the conscience of civilized man, in forming the recognition that compassion is a necessary ingredient for any people. I cannot help but wonder if our world would have developed the medicines and built the hospitals which have prolonged countless lives and relieved much suffering, if not for the message which has been gleaned from his two books. I do not want to take away anything from the other saints who wrote the scriptures, such as Saint Paul who taught us more about charity- the love of God- in one chapter than even a mind like that of Plato could have written in thousands of chapters in numerous books; or from Saint John, who first tells us of the mysteries of love within the Trinity, and extended to mankind. I simply want to speak of my appreciation for Saint Luke who saw the need of man to be healed, first and foremost by repentance from sin.

And, in the early chapters of his Gospel we see a glimpse through the eyes of Doctor Luke into the value of humility that was a part of Christ’s coming and His message to a lost world. Back in the sixties it was popular and trendy, as well as dishonest and silly, to picture Christ as a "revolutionary.” The very context of the times made the use of that word, "revolutionary," part of a grand deception against order and hierarchy, both natural and spiritual, which is needed to sustain human life and love of truth. But, Christ did bring about a kind of genuine revolution; His was the revolution of humility which overturns the overwhelming structure of power and domination, oppression and distinction of class. In Luke’s Gospel we read of the great and powerful figures of the empire by name and office, the name of Caesar Augustus and his governors, but mentioned briefly as nothing more than markings of time. And the time they mark is important not because of their power, but because of what God was doing for mankind through humble persons, insignificant as the world counts significance, poor members of a conquered people without wealth or power, suffering their own kind of oppression from a foreign ruler who taxed and commanded without "consent of the governed." So, yes, Augustus was the emperor, and Cyrenius was the governor, and so forth; but the action of the story, what matters, is what takes place in a stable with a poor carpenter and his wife, with poor shepherds, and with that most helpless of human creatures, a newborn babe.

The angels did not appear to the emperor, or to the governor. They did not appear to the priests in the temple, compromised as they were by their dealings with Caesar’s henchmen. They did not appear to the Pharisees who loved to be greeted in the marketplace and given the position of honor. They appeared to the shepherds, men whose vocation had become despised by the religious authorities of their day; men who were not regarded as members of the synagogues because their work kept them busy in the fields when others could gather for prayer. By the standards of that time these were men who were deemed to be irreligious for reasons beyond their own control. They could not ignore the sheep on every Sabbath, or every Holy Day; their livelihood kept them outdoors with dirty stupid animals who could not be abandoned for even an hour. But, it was to them that the angels appeared; it was to them that the Gospel was preached from heaven itself. And they were the first to come to Bethlehem and adore Christ the Lord.

Now that is genuinely revolutionary, standing the honors of the fallen world upon their head.

And where did they go to worship this king? Did they go to a fine palace adorned with every luxury? They that wear fine apparel are in king’s houses; but the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes was lying in a manger. His mattress was straw, surrounded by the aroma of animals - ox and donkey. As Saint Paul tells us, "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich ( II Cor. 8: 9)."

And again,

" Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2: 5-11)."

Now that is a true revolution, without committing violence, though suffering the violence of sinful men, conquering the conqueror by humility. The structure of the world is based upon how the Gentiles do things - ruling and climbing the ladder of power, exercising dominion upon others- "it shall not be so among you; but he that would be greatest among you must be servant of all, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve." The world cannot change this system; it is in bondage to it until Christ returns as the rightful King of all the earth, because until then sin reigns in the human heart. We have seen that the world cannot change this system of power. The modern world has seen many revolutions. What we had here in America was not a revolution, even though the American war for Independence is called a revolution. The first modern revolution was in France, and it overturned a neglectful monarchy for a reign of terror, a violent assault on everything good and decent by bloodthirsty savages, many of them in fine lace and powdered wigs. This French monstrosity was the prototype of the revolutions of the Twentieth Century, each a blood bath bringing on a new ideology and with it a new and more harsh oppression than anything suffered before it by the peoples of the various countries. The world’s idea of a revolution is simply the rule of the Gentiles replacing a previous rule of the Gentiles, exactly as our Lord described it. The ideologies of the world remain nothing more than competing parties locked into the same old system of sin and darkness which can only express it’s perverse notion of order by raw power.

The only real revolution was accomplished by the rightful King, Jesus Christ; and He did it by the most astonishing means; He did it by humility and by the cross. Choosing to be born in a stable into a poor family, a noble family descended from ancient royalty, but a humble and poor family nonetheless- so poor that at His Presentation (a feast coming up, also named the Purification), as recorded also by St. Luke, they had to offer two pigeons instead of a lamb- to be worshiped by shepherds instead of by the "significant" people of either the Temple or the Empire. And he chose to establish his kingdom by taking up the cross instead of claiming a throne. The shadow of the cross hung over the manger in which he lay as an infant. Every detail of His life on earth, from its earliest moments, speaks of the cross that He would later take up and carry by His own free will. Everything that Christ does, including the circumstances of His birth, goes against the grain; the world is locked into a system of ambitious power and dominion because its greatest law is the law of sin and death. The world’s revolutions never create freedom, peace and righteousness because it is not possible. Pride and ambition, no matter how lofty the ideology, cannot provide an escape from the gravity of sin and death. But, humility, when it is exalted to the highest place of honor by God who resists the proud, is the only true revolution. It does not bring about anarchy or a new order. It restores the rightful King to His place of ruling in the hearts of men. It brings about love and obedience to the Christ Who ruled from the cross to bring about our healing from sin and death, and Who everlives to intercede for us sinners, sinners who repent.

This choice made by God speaks loud and clear to us. He ignores the honors of the world, and calls the outcast shepherds, men who probably would never have considered themselves worthy of God’s love, or of any honor, to be the first to worship the Incarnate Christ, to be the first congregation that stands a prototype of the Church. From this we learn of our need to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God

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