Perhaps the most striking aspect of our Gospel reading this ‘happy morn’ is the fact that it is all about the shepherds: from beginning to end. Even when the story leads us into the presence of Mary, Joseph, and the ‘Infant lying in the manger’ the shepherds still remain in focus as they:
make known the message that had been told them about this child.
And though mention is next made of Mary, the shepherds are still by no means entirely dismissed, for we are told:
Mary kept all these things (told her by the shepherds), reflecting on them in her heart.
Finally, the whole gospel passage is concluded with the joyful picture of the shepherds singing the praises of God as they go back to their work:
They returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.
Why are the shepherds so very important for the Gospel story, so firmly established centre stage?
Surely the answer is that the Son of God was coming in human flesh that He might shepherd Israel, God’s Chosen People, and that they might become sheep of His flock: the flock He would lead to rich pasture while sparing the ewes that were pregnant and cherishing the lambs still weak; the flock whose integrity He would protect from all dangers, while searching for and rescuing individuals gone astray, tending the wounded, nourishing the sick, comforting the fearful and calming the foolish.
From the very situation of His birth, therefore, Jesus began His life most emphatically proclaiming: I am the good shepherd.
At Mass of the Day attention is directed to the divine Person and heavenly Origin of Jesus, and there our worship is called for and His glory exalted:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
Here, however, at this Dawn Mass, our love is provoked by the manifestation of His great goodness and the utter selflessness of His life-long intention to be a good shepherd, qualities rudely and humanly manifested for us by the shepherds around His crib: men who were often lonely for long periods and regularly sleep-starved; men who had to be prepared to face up to hyenas, jackals, wolves and even bears, wielding only their iron-bound cudgels and large knives; men used to experiencing ‘burning heat by day and biting frost by night’ according to the patriarch Jacob who once served as Laban’s shepherd.
Jesus had a well-known, deep, regard for and appreciation of, shepherds, saying once:
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
The shepherd’s life was hard and public esteem for them was generally low; but Jesus openly acknowledged His admiration for those of them willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. That viewpoint is not generally appreciated today and can even be attacked as being wasteful of human life. For Jesus, however, it was a self-centred life -- no matter how cultured or eminent – that was supremely wasteful; while, a life embracing self-sacrifice for love of the good (even the good of mute and, at times, stupid sheep), evoked such admiration and love from Jesus that, no matter how humble, mis-esteemed or unappreciated by others it might be, He most readily saw Himself embodying it: laying down His life for His sheep, unhesitatingly going off into the desert in search of perhaps only one, stupidly lost sheep, and most wholeheartedly rejoicing could He but carry such a lost one back to the flock on His shoulders!
For a true shepherd there was a ‘substantial’ reward quite apart from whatever pittance they might have been able to earn from the owners of the flocks: a mutual bond of trust and appreciation. A good shepherd loved his sheep which, though they might number thousands, were, of themselves, quite helpless, and totally dependent on him for both good pasture and protection; and, living together continually for long periods, a strong bond of affection developed between them, as the sheep, quickly and easily, came to recognize their shepherd’s commitment and to trust him completely. The shepherd’s morning call as he led them out to drink was unique and became immediately recognizable to the sheep of his flock, and he would often play upon a pipe or flute for them as they walked along the way to water or pasture; indeed, there were individual sheep so tame that they would respond to their name being called by that voice they so clearly recognized and so completely trusted.
And so, People of God, we who are sheep of His flock, should be able recognize and most gratefully appreciate the love that filled Jesu’s own Most Sacred Heart from the very first moment of His living amongst us. What did He expect in return? Since Jesus came to give, not to receive -- self-love being totally alien to Him -- I think we must conclude that He expected nothing for Himself. Nevertheless, since His ability to give would ultimately depend on mankind’s ability or willingness to receive what He offered, then out of love for us He must have deeply desired to be received as Shepherd by the sheep He came so selflessly to serve and to save.
Moreover, although Jesus expected nothing, for Himself, He most certainly hoped for, wanted, strove for, and ultimately died for, whatever the best of human nature could be brought to give to and for His Father. What so shocked St. John and all the apostolic witnesses to Jesus was that:
He was in the world, but the world did not know Him. He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him. (John 1:10-11)
That was the supreme tragedy of Jesus’ life: humanity (as represented by His own Chosen People) rejected Him; His own disciples (save John at the foot of the Cross and frightened Peter...probably watching from some sufficiently safe spot) temporarily abandoned Him. And as regards His hopes, His endeavours, for His Father, the most He could say before dying was:
Righteous Father, the world does not know You, but I know You, and these (His most intimate disciples) know that You sent Me. (John 17:26)
However, His self-less love for us triumphed over that rejection both on the Cross and in His glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and that triumph has been shared with us by His Gift of His own most Holy Spirit and of His most Precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist. He comes anew to us, today, as Shepherd … the Good Shepherd offering Himself to us and for us … and we, today, have, by the power of His Spirit with us and in us, the opportunity to change the wretched record of history by giving Him a welcome into our own hearts not unworthy of that relationship between Shepherd and sheep foreshadowed in the stall at Bethlehem those long years ago.
However, we must recognize that though sheep can be stupid as regards their own safety, they quickly learn to recognize their shepherd, their good shepherd; human beings, on the other hand, can be -- and for the most part are -- quite good at looking after themselves, but, does our dear Lord’s human flock, do we -- that is, you and I -- learn so quickly to recognize, so exclusively to follow, and so humbly and whole-heartedly to obey Him, as those ‘stupid’ sheep??
That is why we prayed at the beginning of this Mass:
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that as we are bathed in the new radiance of Your Incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through in our deeds.
St. Paul told us in the second reading that:
The kindness and generous love of God our Saviour appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of His mercy.
God takes the initiative, He leads, He guides, He calls … it is our part, our duty, and surely, ultimately our joy, to LISTEN, to UNDERSTAND, and to RESPOND. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a wonderfully happy and most beautiful morning, for the shepherds have been invited to the grotto where Mary and Joseph adore the Lord Jesus in manger familiar indeed to shepherds, and the Child is wrapped in swaddling clothes just such as would be available to shepherds’ own families; and their presence, so delightfully prepared for, so carefully and repeatedly stressed, assures us of this most beautiful and comforting truth: Jesus wants us to welcome Him this day as our own most loving Shepherd, and invites us anew to become more humble and obedient sheep of His pasture: sheep who recognise His voice, trust Him totally, respond whole-heartedly to His call, and thus come to know how to rejoice in His presence and rest in His care.